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Hello and welcome! I’m Anthony Day. This is the Sustainable Futures Report and it’s Friday 18th January 2019.
Thanks for listening and thanks in particular to my patrons who support me in producing this weekly podcast on sustainability issues. This week’s episode is devoted to an interview and thanks to my patrons’ support I’ve been able to have the whole thing transcribed. You can read the full text on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report. On the blog you will also find the text of previous episodes, with links to the sources of my stories.
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We live in the Anthropocene, the geological age marked by the influence of humanity on the planet. We’ve been having an effect for 50 or 60 thousand years, ever since we started hunting and competing with other animals for food. Since the Industrial Revolution and the advent of high-speed travel we’ve been influencing the planet far more rapidly. Is this a good thing or are we on a path to total destruction?
I’ve been talking to Chris Thomas, who is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of York and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He is author of Inheritors of the Earth, How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction.
In a wide-ranging discussion he told me that humanity has never lived in harmony with nature, we should definitely do more to cut carbon emissions, there is no golden age to go back to and conservation is all too often linked to spurious baselines. He’d also like to introduce elephants and hippopotamuses to the university lake, but he doesn’t think the vice-chancellor would allow it.
There’s a lot more…
Here’s the interview
(There may be some slight differences from the audio as the result of editing.)
Anthony: You presented at a conference towards the end of 2018, which is headlined ‘The Anthropocene’, and when you talk to people about that, they often mention the sixth great extinction and they say, “Well, we're trashing the world, we are causing extinctions every day, if not every hour, and it's a really, really scary situation,” but having read your book, you don't… you seem far, far more relaxed than that.
Chris: Relaxed, but not complacent.
Chris: We are causing a higher rate of extinction than is normal in the geological past, and if we were to maintain the current rates of extinction for another 10,000 years let us say to one order of magnitude, then we would indeed get up to the sorts of levels that have been seen on in the great mass extinctions of the past. But we're not about to hit one of them so-called Big Five and become the big sixth, not instantly at least, because those are defined by 75% or more of all species going extinct, and we're not there and the rate of current extinction isn't taking… is taking us there on the timescale of millennia, not decades. Having said that, humans really started to cut into the world's wildlife, driving extinction of the biggest mammals in particular of the order of magnitude… order of 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, so let's say 50,000 years. Let's say we carry on doing all sorts of things for the next 50,000 years, well, that would be 100,000 year period, and if we maintain that rate of extinction throughout this period, we will indeed have generated a mass extinction. In 100,000 years, geologically is a vanishingly short period of time. So I'm not disagreeing with those who are talking about they, if you like, in the long term unsustainability biologically of the extinction rate, we sure need to do something, lots of things about it, and I'm optimistic that we're actually going to.
Chris: But I'm also more optimistic about how successful many organisms are being at the same time.
Anthony: Of course the other side of… from extinction is evolution, and you talk about the evolution of new species. You talk about it in the context of migration and you also mention a number of conservation activities and you say somewhere, “Why back a loser when you can actually support a winner?” But I got a number of examples which I'm concerned about which I’d like to talk to you about.,
Chris: Okay, great, fire away.
Anthony: Well, the one that I am most interested in is the Asian Hornet, because I’m a bee keeper and the Asian Hornet’s making his way across the channel, we've only had about half a dozen so far…
Anthony: … but they kill bees and bees are important pollinators. So…
Chris: Yes, but they're not native species as such they… and so actually…
Anthony: These are not native species?
Chris: Well, they're… they're insect cows, I mean, that's fine, I'm all in favor of farming, we need to eat stuff. And… but the… there are very large numbers of wild bee species and wild and hover flies and beetles for that matter, even butterflies and moths that are pollinating flowers. And the Asian Hornet… Hornet is disproportionately likes to raid honey bee nests, but this is a very rich concentrated resource which is managed by humans and makes it sitting target. So in this respect, it's no different from the insect pests that might attack an agricultural crop or carry human diseases or whatever. There's… there's a bunch of species out there that are harmful to the interests of humans, but it's not because it's ravaging biodiversity in some general sense, it's because it's keep competing with humans for a resource.
Anthony: Right. So you're saying that it's a lost cause that we're going to have to say goodbye to honey?
Chris: No, no, no, not at all, but we just have to manage it and work out how we're going to do it. It seems pretty clear already that… that it's so widely established, the Asian Hornet, in Europe that there's a vanishingly low chance that we can exterminate it through Europe, so maybe we need to think about are the things that actually kill Asian Hornet. And we know that the… that the wild bee species, the Asian honeybees, etc, are somewhat more capable of defending themselves against Hornet attacks, they've evolved alongside these Asian Hornets for a long time. And maybe we will need to look at some of the strategies being used by those bees and ask whether there are opportunities. But we manage all sorts of… I don't think it's because the Asian Hornet particularly is not a native species which is the challenge here, it's that we've got a system and there's a pest from a human honey production perspective, there's a pest which we now got to deal with which we didn't have to do before. But if we think of our crops, we do all sorts of things to keep weeds out, we do all sorts of things to stop insects feeding on them and transmitting diseases, for our cows, we inoculate them with this that and the other then we the TB and so on. So this is a something that's just going to have to be managed, but we manage things that are deleterious to our interest in all of our other agricultural systems.
Anthony: Right. So the other examples then, which I have Japanese knotweed, Himalayan Balsam, New Zealand flatworm, those things have to be managed in your view?
Chris: Well, sometimes we do, sometimes we don't.
Chris: So in… if we take Japanese knotweed, again, that's something that irritates humans individually, but it's not a threat to European, British or European biodiversity as such. It's actually a very localized plant. And if you look at randomly or more or less… well, or systematically collected plant vegetation data from across the country, it's essentially doesn't feature at all. The problem is, when you've got it growing underneath the foundations of your building, you get very upset, and actually the real problem with it is that it's an insurance blight. And that's why it's become quite so… people have become quite so paranoid about it.
Anthony: So you’re saying it’s when it’s…
Chris: But it's… but it's directly doing something that we as humans don't like.
Anthony: So we can’t do insurance, basically?
Chris: It’s not a threat to biological diversity, yes.
Anthony: I see.
Chris: If you take Himalayan Balsam, that's a much more widespread species. It was native to the… to the Himalayas of course and people love it there. It's a commonly photographed in a place called the valley of the flowers in the Himalayas, it's one of the most beautiful species of the Himalayas, people love it here. When you see costume dramas of the British countryside in the foreground, in my perception of watching those films is the Himalayan Balsam is pretty much the most commonly photographed plant in the foreground because the people find it attractive. And yourself included perhaps, beekeepers like it…
Anthony: Yes, well, we do.
Chris: … because a certain type of year, it generates nectar at a time when other sources might be less available.
Chris: And here again, it is a species that's not really… it can change the local vegetation, that's for sure, but it's not a species that's likely to completely transform the entire vegetation of the country because it's associated with very moist sorts and habitats and it really doesn't do well in dry land. And in fact, many of the places that it's growing are places which would otherwise have brambles and hogweed and nettles and so on, moist nutrient-rich environment. If we… so this, I think, is an example of a species that, because it has arrived recently, we are taking a cultural dislike to it rather than it being a genuine problem. Imagine that we fast for 10,000 years, which might be about the same time in the future as bluebells arrived in the past, at that point, we might considered it’s one of the flowering glories of the British Isles rather than a pest that we should frown upon. So there's nothing bad about Himalayan Balsam for nature in Britain that I'm aware of as a whole. Of course, nature’s slightly different with its present but that doesn't make it worse, and that we are just deciding that, because it's new and actually because it is so colorful and it grows in large sways along the edges of some streams and so on, that because it's so conspicuous like that, we have taken a particular dislike to it as it's novelty. And I think it's just… it's just human culture, it's not… it's not a worse situation than the one we have before.
Anthony: Right. Now, on the other side, you talk about the impact of humanity and you say that, in fact, it's led to a cornucopia of new habitats.
Chris: Yes, absolutely. And it's challenging to know what we should do about them of course, and once again, we come back to the issue of human/cultural attitudes. But if we look across in Britain and Northern Europe as a whole, there are similar stories in increasingly from all other parts of the world is that top of the list of the most endangered species in Britain, just by numbers, are animals, mainly insects, but also plants associated with what were effectively medieval land use management. So the species rich hay meadows cut on a regular rotor and then grazed at other times of year. The coppiced woodlands that every 5 to 20 years or so, depending on how big you wanted your sticks to be for different purposes, people come in there cut an area woodland down, let it rip out from the coppice stools that would regrow then they come back and they cut it down again. This generated warm open conditions on the woodland floor and a number of our woodland flowers, woodland butterflies like some of the fritillaries were reliant on those warm conditions. And the reason that many of our species are declining today is because these sorts of medieval management are no longer economically viable or the most economic way of farming the land and producing, having a production system. And of course, the coppice woodland generated charcoal, which before coal came into fashion, this was the main… this was the fuel of Industry, if you like, if you go back 3, 400 years. So species have become associated with humans, now we're doing something differently, and those species that were very successful in the past are now becoming less so and now… and conservation agencies are now putting lots of effort into carrying out those historical management activities, even though they're not economic, and government subsidizes farmers to, for example, put certain levels of grazing on species rich but low productivity grassland to maintain the biodiversity associated with them. But these are human generated systems, whereas today where are we generating diversity, well, actually often in our suburban Gardens is an area of increasing biological diversity. And I test… I sort of rather fancy the idea which is entirely my own the imaginations of my brain, if you like, the thought that in a few centuries time, people are going to be slapping conservation orders on suburbia to maintain this modern novel habitat.
Anthony: Yes. You say humanity has never lived in harmony with nature, and it would be, I think…
Chris: Did I say that?
Anthony: You did, yes. I think it would be (what's the word?) presumptuous to say that evolution actually happens for the benefit of humanity, it almost certainly doesn't.
Chris: It certainly doesn't, yeah. So that's I can sort of qualify that by. So when people are around, even before… you think of the earliest humans that you might think of as just like any other wild animal. But once humans have become a quite actively hunting and bipedal animal on the plains as a… as a predator, they were consuming resources that would otherwise be available to other predators. They are likely to have started to affect the size of the populations of the things that they're preying on. So… and as human numbers have grown and eventually our technologies and farming, etc, have grown, we've just found new and more effective ways to obtain resources for ourselves, which would otherwise have been available for nature. So people debate quite what percentage of the total plant growth on the planet we take for human consumption, either directly via our food or indirectly via our livestock and then wood and other fiber products and so on. But we are taking… we have over the last few centuries, taken an increasing fraction of that primary production, and as the human population continues to grow this century and per capita consumption continues to grow, which incidentally, I think is a good thing because most of that consumptions growth is taking place in Africa and other poorer parts of the world where that's actually needed, that it is inevitable that there's less of this plant growth production available for all other animals and organisms to consume. So I don't… we can think about how we manage and interact with the biological world in… in ways in which we don't result in grim futures for ourselves, but if we're going to carry on our current numbers and consumption, we can't expect that fundamentally to be more nature because we're consuming so much of it.
Anthony: Yes. One of the most obvious collisions I think is the demand from palm oil against the survival of the orangutan. As another alarmist headline we come across from time to time where people say, “They're only 60 harvests left because we are depleting topsoil irretrievably and we won't be able to grow our cereal crops forever,” what will we do?
Chris: I must say, here my… perhaps my optimism comes in.
Chris: I tend to be rather unenthused by arguments that look at the current trend and they see an upward trend and then they think about something that could go wrong and then forecast that the upward trend is going to turn into a collapse in the medium-term future. I don't honestly believe this is going to happen because where we find ways, where we find that production might be stabilizing or declining, this then becomes a challenge for people to… to increase it. And there's lots of… there's lots of the world's land at the moment which is still farmed rather unproductively where production could be increased in ways that by fertilizing etc. And that's challenging, particularly for some of the additives to maintain this. But… but I think we will find a way. In fact, the increase in production per hectare that's required over the next 50 years is a long way short of what we've actually achieved in the last 50 years. It's not an impossible task this. And the total amount of extra land that's come into cultivation over the last 50 years actually really rather modest compared to this increased production per unit area. So I don't know any better than the next person what's going to happen in 50 to 60 years, but I don't assume it's going to be bad. And I would say that we already have quite a lot of technologies that might lead us to expect that we can maintain production into the longer-term future, but we should take such warnings absolutely seriously so we make absolutely sure that they don't happen.
Anthony: Right. Now, if I'm right, there is a race between the breeding of resistant cereal crops and pests and diseases, just as there is a race between the production antibiotics and the changes in bacteria…
Anthony: … which infect us. Are we going to be able to win that race indefinitely?
Chris: Well, I'm not going to address the human one, we… I think we've been lucky so far and it is possible to conceive of a pathogen that could be seriously problematic for humans at the moment because we're so abundant and so mobile. And medicine at the moment has too long a time lag usually between something new and having the solution for us to be able to deal effectively at the moment with some such surprise. In the agricultural system, I don't think it's personally as anything a lot it like such a problem, but we do need to maintain a sufficient range of suitable crops of production systems across the planet. Because what happens at the moment is that you get a new variety of a crop, let's say, and… and it has resistance to some particular insect or particular or pathogen. Now, on the whole, these have a shelf life of sort of order of magnitude decade or so, some are… some are broken into more rapidly by the pests and diseases, some lasts a bit longer. But the agricultural developers know this and so they've got… they are trying to develop alternatives the entire time. And so… and we also have the different species of crops that we use. So if we get a disaster, by and large, we have so far been in the position to replace it. And it is perfectly possible, not guaranteeing it will always happen, but it's perfectly possible to imagine keeping that going in terms of new development and new systems and increasing capacity to bring in new genes for resistant type by genetic modification and so on. So I think that that potential resilience is there. I think that is not the most likely scenario that because of pests and diseases, we see a complete collapse of agricultural systems.
Anthony: Oh, that's good news, that's encouraging. Now, we haven't mentioned climate change so far. The climate change affects us all and I think it affects biodiversity, but maybe not always in a negative way.
Chris: Well, it affects, yeah, the biological diversity of the planet hugely. Whenever the climate has changed in the past, such as over… over the last million years, we've had seen this sort of crazy zigzag of climates between glacial conditions warmer conditions similar to the present ones or similar to what we had a century or 2 ago. And whenever that has happened, species have moved around the planet surface to new locations. And of course, the ones that couldn't make it have died out, and so we're left with a set of species which are… have survived up to the current time, which is of course always the case, and now we're warming the climate again. But the last million years has, on average, been much colder than the… in fact, much the average of the last million years has been much colder than today, and in 50 years’ time, it's going to be warmer still, it's likely to be the warmest for 3 million years. And the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is already thought to be higher than it's been for at least 3 million years. And by later in this century, we're heading towards the highest co2 concentrations for 20 million years. So this is a major perturbation to the Earth's systems. Whenever this happens, there are changes in the locations where species reproduce successfully and changes in the geographic distributions of the death-rate. And effectively, species do better in the places where their birth rate exceeds the death rate and die out in the places where the death rate exceeds the birth. And that is now happening, we see it all across the planet. To my knowledge, it was sort of the order of 3-quarters of species that anyone's looked at, we can already detect changes in their geographic distributions mostly moving towards the poles and to higher elevations. So this movement of species in a sense is… is not to be stopped, it's not a sign that the world's biological systems have gone wrong, but it is a sign they're adjusting to the new system. But because we're going back to conditions that haven't been seen for such a very long time, we can't guarantee that all of the species again to make it. And in fact, we've got a very, very long list of code or at least cool adapted species, particularly those that are restricted to individual tropical mountains, which really have very little hope because they can only keep going uphill to cool… into cooler environments for a certain length of time where they just run out of hill to move on.
Chris: And there's no way that they can't go down to lower elevations cross the hot or dry lowlands and then go up another higher mountain somewhere else, they are marooned. And so climate change is going to generate large numbers of extinctions or particularly these localized types of species. But on the other hand, other species are moving and adjusting. And because the biological diversity per square kilometer or per hectare or whatever on the land tends to be highest in places that are warm and wet, and despite droughts, actually the average rainfall is going up as well. But so on average across the land surface, we can have this paradox of species dying out, but if you go to any square kilometer of it, you might still expect to find more species than there were in the past. And so if we care about the species dying out, which I certainly do, then we should be really, really concerned. But if we are concerned about the operation of biological systems which might be more connected to the number of species per unit area, then there might be less to fear, although there are exceptions, there are big, big challenges; we should definitely cut emissions immediately.
Anthony: You start off saying that you were relaxed but not complacent.
Anthony: So we must do things. What should we individuals, what can we do? Should we adopt an elephant or should we sponsor a tiger or what should we be doing?
Chris: Well, sitting here in the University of York, I would be absolutely delighted if the university's management were to agree to have a colony of elephants and hippopotamus in the lake and I think that could be slightly pushing it. So I suppose… I'm going to answer with respect to nature conservation and biological diversity, rather than the sort of general, “How do we as humans live on the planet?” which is on so many dimensions.
Chris: And that is that we should get rid of the idea that nature was in some kind of perfect state before humans turned up and ruined it, and that we should get rid of the idea that there's a sort of idealized, if you like, baseline nature that was correct that we need to return to in some way. Because all of the ecological processes on the earth, the birth and death of individuals, the movement of individuals, their interactions with one another, and all the evolutionary processes of some types of species being more successful than others, eventually the evolution of new species, every single biological process that is generated that diversity we have today is a dynamic one. And therefore, trying to sort of save the world in aspect, if you like, is not the approach to conservation. And during… the during the time of climate change, it is particularly… well, if people try to do it, they're going to fail. And so we should be thinking about managing the dynamics of change translation movement, rather than harking back to some perceived better past. And that in mind, some circumstances will include things that are currently not higher agenda or and most people's thinking such as, with climate change, most of the species that are going to go extinct from climate change in Europe are those that are restricted to European mountain ranges, particularly in southern Europe. Like the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain there's a bunch of water beetles that live a high elevation, butterflies as well. There's no way they can spread northwards, they're just getting pushed off the top of the mountain, but what they need is moist conditions, they thrive on the snowmelt streams there. But north… parts of North Western Europe are not expected to have such a severe summer droughts in the future, so can we find a home for such species? Can we actually move some of these climate endangered species and bring them to the places they wouldn't otherwise be able to achieve, get to? Now, it's hard for an individual citizen to then to say, “Alright, I'm going to go out and I'm going to get some beetles and bring them to Britain,” but I think there's an… effectively, there's an engagement with the discussion in the conservation community of, “How do we support dynamism and dynamism that we accept and think of, ‘That's fine, that's nature responding and doing better than it would otherwise have done in the whole context of human change,’?” And eventually, that conversation does turn into changes in policy and actions, because if we want to save these species, we're going to have to do something seriously different in the next 50 years to our approach of what's often term habitat restoration, which is our main focus at the moment.
Anthony: So the Anthropocene has, to quite a large extent, been made by humans, I get the impression you're confident that humans will survive it.
Chris: I have no confidence in the future that I can't see. I'm confident that not all of the current indicators are negative. I am confident that the… there are many species that are associated with human environments. Britain's got about 2,000 non-native species that are established in the wild. And although some of our native species have declined sometimes quite dramatically such as the red squirrel as a result of these arrivals, no native species have actually gone extinct from the whole of Britain as a result of the establishment of these extra 2,000 species. So we're looking at them as a negative thing, but from some perspectives, if you're as a biologist, you step back and in a thoroughly heartless way of a scientist, you say, “Are there now more species in Britain than there were or fewer?” the answer is more. And… and so it then is… as I said earlier, is then often a cultural issue as to whether we are accepting of this new situation. Yes, I just feel that we… what we do is we often measure the change in relation to these past baselines. And because the future weighs departs from the past, we therefore conclude that everything is getting worse, when in fact, change should not… and deterioration of a system should not be synonymous. And I look at it this way as a sort of biologist that thinking about dynamic systems is that, if we use a baseline in our environmental thinking and conservation, every ecological and evolutionary change that preceded that, including the arrival of new species, has… is deemed to be good because it contributed to the state of the world at the time of the baseline. But every change to the system subsequent to that, changes in relative abundances of different species, the disappearance of some, the arrival of new species, even if it's more than disappeared, every one of those changes after the baseline is deemed to be a departure from it and therefore bad. And in a dynamic world, that simply doesn't make a sensible way of formulating our approach to living in a long term sustainability sustainably in this dynamic environment we inhabit.
Anthony: There's one thing that I think is a bit left field which I didn't put in, which is, “Is modern medicine frustrating natural selection? Because we are preserving…”
Chris: Yes, a bloody good thing too, excuse my language, because otherwise… otherwise we… without modern medicine, the human population size would be considerably lower than it is now, and of course modern sanitation is even more important, and it is… we are in a race. My perception is that, in 100 years’ time, maybe even in 40, 50 years’ time that the rate that when a new pathogen manages to colon… colonize humans from another species of animal, let's say, or when an existing disease of humans evolved a new form, that at the moment, it tends to take us anything from months to years or even a decade or more if we think before we have effective responses to it. It took a long time to sort out HIV for example, not that it's fully sorted out, but at least there are halfway reasonable approaches to the challenge at the moment. So at the moment, we have time delays that are measured in months, usually the shortage 3 or 2 years and even on occasions, a decade or more from a serious new pathogen outbreak to us having some adequate response to it that is a genuine medical response. Given how many humans there are on the moment than our protoplasm is very attractive resource, let's say, then if we were to get a pathogen with the transmissibility of Ebola, but the biological response of HIV, let's say, so that the individuals didn't immediately die, then… no I'll say that again. The… so you could imagine a… so Ebola doesn't work effectively as a disease in humans at the moment because it burns itself out too fast. HIV doesn't burn… burns slow, it's an effective disease in a way, but it's… but it's actually not very good at being transmitted. So measles, for example, for every child who get measles, if there are other susceptibles in the population, on average, about 14 others catch the disease as a result of it, whereas with many of these novel disease, for each person with the disease, barely more than 1 new person catches it. But if you could imagine we got one of these diseases that our bodies can't cope with like HIV or Ebola and it had the transmissibility of measles, then we would really be in a challenging global situation at the moment. But if we fast forward medicine for 50 to 100 years, maybe sooner, then the response time… because we can now sequence everything quickly. We can potentially for and look at multiple protein molecules and so on and so forth, we can potentially reduce that response time greatly. And so it could be argued (and I have no idea whether this is the case, it's just my thoughts) that could be argue that we're in a particularly vulnerable place right at the moment from the point of view of medicine, because we could have a huge disease outbreak, it would spread around the world almost instantaneously given human transport and we're not fast enough at responding. But once we can respond faster, then that window of risk, if you'd like, might pass.
Anthony: Thank you very much.
[Chris: My own Doomsday story. I don’t think it is very likely, but it is.]
Chris Thomas, of the University of York.
His book is Inheritors of the Earth, How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction.
And that’s it…
That’s it for this week. There are many stories vying for inclusion next time and I must admit do being slightly distracted by current UK politics at the moment. The greatest constitutional crisis of our time has that effect. I am working on ideas which you suggested before Christmas and I’m looking to commission research on some of them. I can do this thanks to the support of my patrons, so thanks for that!
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.