Romantics of conservation face off against the pragmatists

Six of Australia’s top scientists – and among the most intrepid – entertained people attending the TERN ecosystem observation symposium and Adelaide residents when they debated the value and harm of European land-use practices in an Australian landscape.

The debate, ‘Will European land use devastate Australia’s unique biodiversity?’, held the evening before the symposium began, was organised by the Australian Centre for Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS) and the Royal Australian Institution (RiAus).

It marked the end of a two day-long ‘Grand Workshop’ funded by ACEAS, at which two groups of scientists crunched data and knowledge on animal and plant extinctions, and reflected on how we might live more sensitively in our fragile land we want ecologically sustainable livelihoods.

On the affirmative team at the debate, conservation ecologist Jasmyn Lynch, ecologist and conservation biologist Chris Johnson, and quantitative modeller and ecologist David Keith argued that, in fact, there have already been a huge number of extinctions, and that we can expect more.

‘It began with the arrival of an aggressive new species that upset the ecosystem,’ they said. Yes, that meant Europeans – and it also meant the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples tens of thousands of years ago, whose arrival probably heralded the end of Australian megafauna.

‘Most of us – 85 per cent of us – are urbanites who live on the coast. If we encounter a wombat or a cassowary, it’s generally via David Attenborough or road kill,’ they said of Australians’ difficult relationship with our wildlife.

They also talked about the unintended devastation caused by the introduction of exotic species.

‘We have lost a huge number of species, and the rest are threatened! An extinct species cannot adapt. The Black Knight may cry “It’s only a flesh wound” but the bleeding stumps are there for all to see,’ they said.

Opposing them, pure and applied ecologist David Bowman, climate scientist Barry Brook, and expert in natural resource management and farming systems Wayne Meyer, teased the affirmative team for claiming that how we manage the land amounted to an environmental sin.

‘We’re all sinners, and there is no redemption!’ David Bowman cried.

‘You [the affirmative team] are all driving around looking in the rear-view mirror of 1788! Move on! This debate is really about the romantics versus the pragmatists. I want to be a romantic, but I have to be a pragmatist. We have to do real things. We have to take risks. The negative view is actually the positive view!’

They argued for building constituencies among private land holders, rural and urban, to create communities of champions of our biodiversity and ecosystems as they are now, considerably altered.

For all the humour, the debaters had many serious points to make. RiAus streamed the debate live, and, as well as the 150 or so people who were in the audience, 76 people tuned into their computers to watch at least some of it. The debate, and the question-and-answer session after it, were filmed and have been uploaded to the RiAus website, which also introduces the speakers.

Look out for an article about the ACEAS Grand Workshop in the May newsletter.

Published in TERN e-Newsletter April 2012

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