The best of times and the worst of times in ecology

The 3rd annual TERN symposium opened with words of caution and of praise and hope, and set the tone for the two days of presentation, discussion and networking.

Auntie Josie Agius warmly welcomed everyone to her country, the land of the Kaurna people. Her casual, wise words went straight to the nub of why 190 people working in the ecological sciences and supporting fields all over the country were gathered in Adelaide.

In his opening address, CSIRO Fellow Dr Steve Morton took the audience into the heart of his dream that ecologists, armed with the sort of knowledge that TERN can provide, will soon bring clout and influence to public and political discussion and to policy making, and that these will lead Australians into a newly harmonious view of human society living with a natural world that we nurture.

He began by referring to the changeless power and dynamism of human intellect and emotions in solving human problems by invoking the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ classic Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity…
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

‘Why do I open with Dickens today?’ Steve asked. ‘It’s because the best writers speak to us down the generations. And that’s how it feels to me today: it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times.

‘We live in a world in which our standard of living, our knowledge of the globe, our knowledge of ourselves, are beyond the dreams of the people of Dickens’ generation, and yet we know in our hearts that we face extraordinary challenges. All that knowledge brings with it the knowledge of the profound impact we are having on the planet that supports us. Knowledge of the pace of change, of the escalating scale and nature of disaster and the profound intimations of worse to come. It’s the best of times and the worst of times… Things are getting better and better and worse and worse, faster and faster.’

This was where TERN came in.

‘TERN’s on the side of the angels. TERN’s part of the age of wisdom. TERN promises to grow our understanding of the nature of Australia and the consequences of human use for the ongoing function of our continent,’ he said.

He said scientists working in ecology needed to call collectively on their deep store of ‘wit and invention and innovation’ to become the actors who influence the development of Australian society in a way that allowed us to make the most beneficial use of our resources while minimising damage to our environments, for our benefit as well as that of the other life we share the continent with.

For this to happen, ecologists in TERN and elsewhere had to learn how to translate their knowledge of ecology into more effective advice ‘to the society that supports us and depends upon us’. He acknowledged how challenging this is.

Challenges and hope

Steve saluted the government officials who had shared the vision of a research repository network and worked to secure political support and funding for TERN. However, to achieve the goals of the both government and the science institutions required more than that.

‘You’ve brought yourselves together in TERN in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere in Australia,’ Steve said. ‘You’re doing this because it is the right thing to do. You are on the side of the angels. You are potentially a game changer, a transformational opportunity.’

If TERN could repay this investment, it would give the government the confidence to argue for ongoing political support. That this was possible was illustrated by the political will to achieve lasting environmental change to save the Murray–Darling system, however controversial and fraught.

‘The political process is prepared to do difficult things if it has confidence in the underlying information that argues for that course of action,’ he said.

But first TERN had to overcome at least two big challenges. It had to find ways to:

  • sort trend from inherent complexity, and help Australians understand this; and
  • translate environmental knowledge into management options that are achievable and affordable.

Until ecologists could measure, analyse and monitor trends, and tease them out from normal processes of ecosystems changing in response to perturbation, ‘we are fencing with shadows’. State-of-the-environment reports over the past 15 years showed that, despite gains made in ecological knowledge ecology as a discipline did not have the rigour of some other natural sciences, such as hydrology and climate science. He challenged ecologists to acknowledge their biases, and to come up with different ways of protecting our biodiversity. One place might be to rethink the meaning of ‘natural’.

‘We put much of our effort into “natural” ecosystems – this leaves us with a huge number of unresolved challenges about advising society on the function of systems that are human modified, already the bulk of the face of our country and the globe. And those systems go on functioning, for better or worse,’ Steve said.

‘In the words of the Emma Marris, the science writer, “Ecosystems are stable entities affected by change about as much as a ballet is a static object affected by motion”. Yet, when it comes to thinking about the response of ecosystems to disturbance, our inclination seems to be to advise society to try and hold back that change. I’ve done it myself. We have a pronounced anxiety about admitting that any change might not matter. We need to build our expertise in those systems to a much greater extent.’

Ecologists needed to be able to develop a set of national environmental accounts that could be translated into policy, in the same trusted way that occurred already in such fields as economics and demographics.

‘Ecology is the toughest discipline of all. But just because it is difficult does not let us off the hook,’ Steve said.

‘My ambition is for our discipline to … take its place as a supplier of intelligent, intelligible, measureable, repeatable advice. Can TERN help? OF course it can. In fact it is the bright light on the Australian horizon at the moment.’

Published in TERN e-Newsletter April 2012

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