Forget the Planet: Save Yourself!
These days it feels as though almost everything you do, from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep, is somehow bad. Actually, you’re producing CO₂ while you’re asleep, so even sleeping is bad! Every day, yet another scientist seems to be pointing at yet another aspect of your daily routine and explaining why this, previously innocuous act, is now very, very bad for “the environment”. The sheer scale of the problem is exhausting and the complexity of the solutions can feel overwhelming.
This exhaustion – often referred to as ‘environmental warning fatigue’ - is one of the many reasons why calls to ‘save the whales’, ‘the trees’ or even ‘the planet’, aren’t really having much of an impact anymore. We all have environmental warning fatigue, and we all need to snap out of it.
Because the truth is, whether or not you care particularly strongly about “the environment”, whether you prefer a buzzing, city café to a wetland buzzing with birds and insects, whether you prefer climate control to discussions about climate change, the time to get engaged in these issues is now. Actually, it was 15 years ago. But here we are, so let’s start now.
The truth is that because of our collective apathy, because of countless tragedies of the commons that have occurred over the past few centuries in particular, because of our exponential population growth, insatiable appetites and our very real disconnection from “the environment”, we’ve gotten ourselves into quite a troublesome situation. Perhaps the most troubling thing about it all is that most of us don’t really appreciate just how frightening things are becoming.
The truth is that some of the very fundamental biological, chemical and physical processes – ‘ecosystem services’ as they’re often called – which are provided, for free, by “the environment” and support ALL life on Earth, are under threat. So, whether or not you care much about whales, trees or, for that matter, the planet, has recently become fairly irrelevant.
In this blog I’ll explain why it’s so profoundly important and in the fundamental interest of every, single one of us, to understand the ecosystem services we rely upon, what’s happening to them, and what we need to do – as soon as possible – to set them right. It’s not about saving the planet anymore – it’s about saving ourselves.
I’m a marine biologist, a university academic and a writer. The core questions of my research have always been “How do human activities impact marine ecosystems?” and “What can we do about those impacts?”.
I’m particularly fond of seaweeds, which is an admission that many people find appallingly disappointing, given my other ‘marine biologist’ options (dolphins, whales, sharks, even fish! But seaweeds…?). I love seaweeds for many reasons, but primarily because they create underwater forests that provide essential ecosystem services (just like forests on the land), such as food, oxygen, carbon sequestration and biodiversity, to name but a few. Essentially, seaweeds are really cool, and on many reefs, they’re SUPER important.
Whilst I admit that I will talk about seaweeds for no particular reason at any given opportunity, my mentioning them now is for a specific purpose: seaweed forests are a salient example of important ecosystems in decline. The cascade of consequences free-flowing from these decline can lead to alarming impacts on the health and wellbeing of people. Allow me to explain.
Underwater seaweed forests are declining from most temperate (temperate = not tropical, not polar) reefs around the world. I live in Australia, where we have an incredibly high diversity of seaweed species, many of which occur nowhere else on the planet. In the past 20 years, seaweed forests have disappeared from hundreds of kilometres of temperate coastlines all around the bottom half of Australia. Typically, the northernmost populations disappear first, then the decline progresses in a poleward (southerly) direction. The latest predictions are grim and suggest that in addition to the loss of biodiversity (of the seaweeds themselves and the multitude of creatures that live within or feed on them), by the end of this century, the 15 most important seaweeds will have lost between 30-100% of their current distribution due to warming and related complications. Whilst these declines (extant and predicted) are incredibly sad for people who love seaweeds (ok so for me and, maybe, 10 other people), the consequences of these declines will be more widely felt.
To illustrate just what this means for everyone else, let’s focus in on Tasmania – Australia’s smallest and southern most state. Until a few decades ago, almost the entire coastline of this island state was flanked by dense, underwater forests of Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera). Since the 1940s, we have lost 95% of these forests. 95%! As well as being breathtakingly beautiful, these immense forests provided crucial habitats for two of Australia’s most valuable fishery species - the Rock Lobster (Jasus edwarsii) and Abalone (Haliotis rubra), which provide thousands of Tasmanians with jobs and generate billions of dollars for Australia’s economy every single year. The full impacts of kelp loss on these industries is yet to be fully understood and quantified, but it illustrates how intrinsically linked human wellbeing is to ecosystem health and function.
This is just one, small example from my own - very specific - area of research expertise, in the smallest state of the most remote country in the world. But everywhere we look, we see evidence for how our impacts on nature are starting to impact our own health, wealth and communities. It's time to get on top of this - to properly value the ecosystem services we rely upon and to stop believing in false economics. Things are getting real and now, more than ever we need to invest in a future that will sustain us, rather than continue to sabotage it.
In this blog I’ll explain the processes that provide us with air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat and highlight some of the human activities that are directly impacting these processes and already affecting the lives and health of people. I'll highlight some incredible solutions and innovative science buying us time and keeping the pendulum swinging - occasionally - back from despair, to hope.
It's no longer about saving the whales or the trees, it’s about saving ourselves.