Tag Archives: conservation

The Perfect as the Enemy of the Good in Sustainable Living

Eating beef isn't great for the environment. But ca someone who occasionally snacks on cows still be in favour of conservation and other ecological causes?

Eating beef isn’t great for the environment. But can someone who occasionally snacks on cows still be in favour of conservation and other ecological causes?

Today I want to talk about a tweet. Or more accurately, the attitude to sustainability that this tweet represents. It occurred during the recent Ecological Society of Australia conference, and went roughly thus*.

Good to see only vegetarian food at ESA2018. We know that it’s not possible to be truly in support of conservation unless you cut meat out of your diet.

Now for starters, I want to make it clear that I am 100% in support of eating vegetarian. For those of us fortunate enough to be living in relative affluence, vegetarian diets are easy to maintain, generally cheaper (based on personal experience), and have a proven positive impact on the climate. I’m not completely vegetarian, but I take a lot of steps to minimise my diet’s climate footprint. It doesn’t take much.

What I am not in support of is the idea that a person cannot possibly be a proponent of conservation and other ecological causes, or that their other efforts in support of a better world are futile, if one facet of their life does not align perfectly with minimising their climate impact. This attitude can come in many forms, from the above tweet, to your friends who yell “HA, hypocrite!” when they discover a stray plastic bag in your room or see you take a taxi instead of biking one day.

To underline my frustration with this attitude, let’s look at a now somewhat-famous study that came out in mid-2017. The paper was a meta-analysis which drew up a list of lifestyle changes in developed countries which had the highest carbon footprint. You can read a few summaries of the paper here and here, and the paper itself here.

In the study, switching to a vegetarian (or ‘plant-based’, as the study refers to it) diet was listed as the step with the sixth-highest impact. To highlight the problems with the attitude I’m arguing against here, let’s rephrase the above tweet using the step with the third-highest.

Good to see that everyone put the effort in and drove to ESA2018. We know that it’s not possible to be truly in support of conservation unless you find an alternative to flying wherever physically possible.

If this were true, then there would be a lot less attendees at conferences like this every year. Now for the step with the highest.

Good to see more non-parent ecologists at ESA2018. We know that it’s not possible to be truly in support of conservation unless you don’t have children.

No comment needed, I feel.

Now admittedly, the two above are substantially more impactful on an individual’s lifestyle that turning vegetarian. But I know a few ecologists who have several children, and I would never dream of accusing them of not being in support of ecological causes.

Furthermore, I believe the propagation of the idea that anything less than perfect is insufficient can dissuade people from making lifestyle changes. The following quote is from Voltaire, and I think it applies here quite well.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Whether you’re an environmentalist, a conservationist, or an accountant, if you want to support the environment, absolutely you should encourage lifestyle changes to help reduce our impact on the planet. But please, let’s not spread the idea that anything less than total commitment is worthless.

*The tweet itself has been somewhat paraphrased. I do not wish for the ecologist who wrote it to be googled or messaged for obvious reasons. I have been assured by colleagues that they are a brilliant ecologist, and by no means intend to disparage their person by my disagreement with this one opinion.

Celine Frere: Working With Charismatic Species

Charismatic species like the bottlenose dolphin are generally easier to find funding for. So what's it like to work with them as a scientist. I spoke to evolutionary biologist Celine Frere to find out

Charismatic species like the bottlenose dolphin are generally easier to find funding for. So what’s it like to work with them as a scientist. I spoke to evolutionary biologist Celine Frere to find out (Image Credit: Jason Pratt, CC BY 2.0)

We’ve talked at length about charismatic species on Ecology for the Masses. They’re the ones that draw in the public, whether they’re cute and fluffy, majestic, or dangerous. They’re generally easier to procure funding for. So what’s it like to work with them?

During a recent visit to the University of the Sunshine Coast, I sat down with Doctor Celine Frere to find out. Celine works with two of Australia’s most charismatic species, the koala and the bottlenose dolphin. We talked about the pros and cons of charismatic species, getting the public interested in them, and the future of global conservation.

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Populations Can’t Grow without Homes

Sea otters are one of many charismatic species found along the California coast, yet recovery doesn’t seem to be helping them. Is it something about their habitat that is preventing population growth? (Image Credit: “Mike” Michael L. Baird, CC BY 2.0)

Gaps in kelp cover may threaten the recovery of California sea otters  (2018) Nicholson et al., Ecography, DOI:10.1111/ecog.03561

The Crux

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the fur trade was a massive industry in North America. As a result, many species were hunted and trapped to near extinction. The California sea otter (Enhydra lutris) was reduced in population to less than 50 total individuals. The enactment of the Internation Fur Treaty allowed the species (and others) to come back from the brink of extinction, and they now number over 3200 individuals and are spread across 525km of the California coast. Interestingly, although the population is recovering, it has not bounced back as quickly as other protected mammals living in the same habitat. The California sea lion, for example, has a maximum population growth rate more than twice that of the sea otter (11.7% compared to 5%).

Despite the remarkable recovery of the species, the sea otters occupy less than a quarter of their historic range and have not expanded along the coast in 20 years. The authors of this paper wanted to investigate what it is about the sea otters and their habitat that is slowing this population’s growth rate and spread along the coast.

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Fishers and Fish Science: The Australian Fish Scientist Perspective

Fishing is an important part of Australian society. So is communication between fish scientists and fishers strong enough?

Fishing is an important part of Australian society. So is communication between fish scientists and fishers strong enough? (Image Credit: State Library of Queensland, CC0)

Last Thursday, I posted an article on the need for more contact communication the fish scientist community and the fishing community, which you can find here. It gives a breakdown of why better communication between the two groups is mutually beneficial, and how it could be improved. The piece was written after talks with a number of prominent Australian fish biologists, whose thoughts I’ve shared in more detail below.

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The Changing Face of Ecology: ASFB Edition

I speak to another group of influential researchers on how ecology has changed over the recent decades

I speak to another group of influential researchers on how ecology has changed over the recent decades (Image Credits: Jarod Lyon, Gretta Pecl, CSIRO, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I’m 29. It’s not like that makes me uniquely qualified to give me the youth’s perspective on ecology today. But it does make me 100% unqualified to talk about how ecology has changed in recent decades. So when I was at the recent Australian Society for Fish Biology Conference (a line you’ll surely be sick of if you’ve been keeping up with my recent interviews), I decided to get some uniquely fishy perspectives on how our discipline has changed over the last 20-30 years.

The following commentaries are naturally from fish biologists. If you’d like a broader perspective on the changing face of ecology, check out Part One and Part Two of this series. You can also find the full interview with all the scientists below by clicking on their names.

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Peter Unmack & Karl Moy: Saving an Endangered Fish from Extinction

A release of the formerly endangered Running River Rainbowfish. So how were they brought back from near-extinction?

A release of the formerly endangered Running River Rainbowfish. So how were they brought back from near-extinction? (Image Credit: Karl Moy, University of Canberra, CC BY-SA 4.0)

We talk a lot about getting the public interested in conservation and ecosystems on Ecology for the Masses, but we’ve rarely talked about how conserving a species is actually accomplished. Where does funding come from? How do you decide which individuals to save? And how do you allow a population room to grow?

In 2015, Peter Unmack was sampling in the Burdekin river system in northern Queensland, Australia, when he noticed an alien population of Eastern Rainbowfish had established in Running River. Specifically a 13km stretch bounded by two gorges, which housed the Running River Rainbowfish, a species distinct to this one stretch. Knowing that the presence of the Eastern Rainbowfish could spell the extinction of the local species, he started a crowdfunding initiative, and essentially saved the Running River Rainbowfish. I spoke to Peter and postgraduate student Karl Moy about the conservation effort.

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Eva Plaganyi: Understanding the Human Side of Ecology

CSIRO scientist Éva Plagányi, who has worked with researchers from social and economic backgrounds to better understand human impacts on ecology (Image Credit: CSIRO, CC BY-SA 2.0)

At the end of the day, the aim of an ecologist is to generate a better understanding of the natural world around us. But that can amount to nothing if that understanding isn’t translated to the people who interact directly with the aspects of the natural world that we research. So whilst understanding an ecosystem should be our main priority, understanding the people who interact with an ecosystem is integral to making a difference.

This is where social sciences like anthropology can help. At the ASFB 2018 Conference, I spoke to plenary speaker CSIRO’s Dr. Éva Plagányi, who works on maintaining the sustainability of marine life. Éva’s work includes interaction with everyone from corporate businessmen to traditional fishers, and integrating social anthropology into her work has yielded great results. I spoke to Éva on the importance of incorporating social science into ecology.

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