Dr Colin D Butler

“At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.” (Chico Mendes)

Abstract

This paper seeks to place the issue of forest protection within a wider context of regard for Nature. It starts with a brief review of urban forests and health, including air pollution, “green space” and “nature deficit disorder”. It then discusses climate change, in conjunction with other evidence of disregard for nature and its effect on heatwaves, floods and ecosystems, including the habitat of the Monarch butterfly. Evidence is then presented linking disrespect for nature, minorities and other limits to growth with climate change, refugees, conflict and population policy.

This paper seeks to place the issue of forest protection within a wider context of regard for Nature. It starts with a brief review of urban forests and health, including air pollution, “green space” and “nature deficit disorder”. It then discusses climate change, in conjunction with other evidence of disregard for nature and its effect on heatwaves, floods and ecosystems, including the habitat of the Monarch butterfly. Evidence is then presented linking disrespect for nature, minorities and other limits to growth with climate change, refugees, conflict and population policy.

On the whole, in the last ten thousand years (the Holocene) Nature has been benign, forgiving  and abundant. Humanity has flourished. However, unless we quickly alter our path, on a scale that today seems almost unimaginable, we will leave this sweet spot behind. Future Nature will not be so benign. We risk a new Dark Age.

In this context, it is imperative that we value and protect Nature that remains, including our forests. Australians have, in recent decades, almost led the world as carbon criminals. Our record on biodiversity is also poor. This behaviour has to change, from the bottom up and the middle out. Politicians like Bob Such are unfortunately rare, but even the lawyers and unionists who dominate our parliaments and who largely appear indifferent to Nature, will listen to people if we show we care enough. As the multiple global crises deepen, this is the only chance we have.

Introduction

Although I have written on global deforestation and about human health and forests, as well as other aspects of ecosystem “services” and on biodiversity change and human health, this paper takes a different track. It attempts to place deforestation within the broader sphere of harm and loss of respect (and reverence for life) and Nature. It covers a large territory and is not intended to be comprehensive. It starts with a brief review of health and urban trees, before then linking climate change and loss of respect for nature with the evolving refugee crisis and the potential for conflict.

Human health, forests and trees

Air pollution

Preservation and enhancement of forests is beneficial to reduce air quality (rural and urban), climate change and also provides valuable erosion and flooding control.
Trees in cities reduce the urban heat island effect and give crucial habitat to insects, birds and mammals. Trees are especially effective at reducing levels of particulate matter (PM), an important component of air
pollution from vehicles, industry and (where used) the burning of biomass including wood, for cooking and
heating. In turn, PM is an important cause of lung and heart disease.

However, the relationship between trees and air pollution is complex. For a start, tree lined avenues may increase local air pollution from cars, by reducing ventilation. Furthermore, some tree species (including Mediterranean plants, both deciduous and coniferous trees, such as elder, elm, spruce and pine) emit volatile organic compounds (VOC) which may in some cases and seasons worsen urban ozone concentrations in combination with traffic and other sources of air pollution.

Green Space and “Nature Deficit Disorder”

There is a growing appreciation that regular contact with nature, including when young, may benefit human well-being and lower anti-social behaviour. Richard Louv has coined the term “nature deficit disorder” for what may be a syndrome more common among people deprived from much contact with nature. In support, a study undertaken in Munich, Germany, found that boys living further than 500 m away from urban green spaces had more behavioural problems compared to those living within 500 m of urban green spaces.

However, debate remains about cause and effect. Specifically, more affluent people, who in general have better health, access to more resources and who adopt more health protective behaviour, such as lower smoking rates, are more likely to live in leafier areas and to be closer to parks, where property prices are higher. Could the reported behavioural benefit of access to parks for boys be actually because they get more physical exercise? Or, perhaps, they have more leisure and feel more energetic, due to a nicer home life? Or is the experience of being in nature – even a fairly bland urban park – inherently beneficial?

Perhaps all of these explanations have some validity. The great planetary ecologist, René Dubos (credited by some with coining “think globally act locally”) commented in the 1950s on the reduced human contact with nature that was then evolving, especially in urban areas. Dubos speculated that this would trigger a demand for artificial forms of stimulation, including through drugs. It is possible that Dubos may also have anticipated a growth in electronic stimulation as partial compensation for the loss of contact with nature: the early forms of electronic games and virtual reality were evolving when Dubos was still alive.

Dubos warned:

.. people adapt so unconsciously to their surroundings, .. that they would no longer mind the stench of automobile exhausts, ugly urban sprawl, “starless skies, treeless avenues, shapeless buildings, tasteless bread, joyless celebrations.” “We do not live on the planet earth but with the life it harbours and within the environment that life creates”

Could people who are poorer benefit from exposure to more green space (and blue space – water views), even if their other risk factors for poor health remain unchanged? It seems worth a try, but policy makers are likely to require additional evidence before converting pts of densely populated urban areas to green space.

In general, in Australia, as in many nations, rural people are poorer, less educated and less healthy than their urban cousins. Yet rural people have, on average, significant exposure to green space. This suggests, if there is a benefit from such exposure, that it is not sufficiently powerful to overcome many other disadvantages.

Some risks from the wrong tree species

Not all trees benefit health; some species are highly allergenic, causing severe symptoms in vulnerable people, including asthma and, possibly mood changes. There are credible claims that exposure to allergens is a factor underpinning the long observed rise in suicides in spring.

Trees frequently shed leaves and twigs; their debris blocks gutters and adds to maintenance costs. Especially in winds and storms, trees drop branches and can fall, crushing cars and even houses. Trees give shade and reduce noise but their shade in urban areas may hide views, reduce photovoltaic energy production and lessen valuable sun access to Vitamin D deprived people in winter. But, of course, shade is appreciated in hot weather. In some settings, urban forests can fuel catastrophic urban fires, such as those which swept through much of Canberra in 2003 (complete with fire tornadoes). Considerable thought, research and expertise is therefore needed to choose the optimal mix of tree species, especially in urban areas. Although this is the background paper for the keynote lecture, I am not going to offer a more detailed opinion!

Sacred groves

Finally, it is worth mentioning that contact with trees, especially ones that are old, appears nourishing psychologically and spiritually, at least to people with high “biophilia” (a love of nature). In many traditional societies sacred groves are worshipped and maintained. The Buddha was enlightened beneath a Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa).

Climate change, loss or respect for nature, and our slow emergency

The world faces multiple crisis. In this section, I am treading firmer ground, having written and warned of these issues for 25 years (19, 20). High income nations feel besieged by refugees and asylum seekers. A large number of low income nations are wracked by insurgency, division, and in some cases ruinous and vicious war. The two spheres (fear and war) interact, generating xenophobia, fences, walls and detention camps at the barriers. Periodically, news reports announce new crossings of people across boundary, unwanted by most and generally regarded as incursions, if not invasions. The issue of asylum seeking has become central to many election campaigns, including in Australia.

Climate change: heat and flooding

The climate is steadily warming and we are perilously close to the target set in the Paris climate conference of December 2015 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Climate change is accelerating, credit Prof Stefan Rahmstorf, using NASA data. 12-months running average, including the new July (2016) value, the hottest month ever recorded. In 2016 average temperature increase is perilously close to the 1.5 degree target, announced only in December 2015. This target is in comparison to “pre-industrial” levels (1850-1900). Although this figure suggests a recent anomaly of 1 degree C, it is more like 1.2 degrees C compared to the 1850-1900 level.

The climate is also “wilding”, including an apparent increase in the recently named phenomena “rainbombs”. While this term might seem dramatic (an article in Bloomberg suggested that “climate change is weaponizing the atmosphere”) there is evidence, where good records exist, of increased rainfall intensity in the U.S., and possibly in Australia, too. Heavier rainfall (and flash flooding) is consistent with our understanding of climate change; a warmer atmosphere can hold (and release) more water. There have been many spectacular examples in recent months (see figure 2-4).

Figure 2 Flooded homes in Hammond, Louisiana, USA on Saturday, August 13, 2016. Image via AP. http://jezebel.com/the-historic-flooding-in-louisiana-is-looking-pretty-da- 1785299122?utm_campaign=socialfow_jezebel_twitter&utm_source=jezebel_twitter&utm_medium=social flow See caption for Figure 4

 

Figure 3 Flooding in Khartoum, Sudan, August 2016. See caption for figure 4. http://camuudmedia.com/archives/2016/08/75540

Figure 4 Flooding in Khartoum, Sudan, August 2016. This picture gives an insight into the hardships endured in low income settings. Although a single flood is not “proof” of climate change, our understanding of climate change is that such floods will become more frequent and severe. http://camuudmedia.com/archives/2016/08/75540

Climate and ecological change

Climate and other forms of ecological change are also causing a profound alteration to the nature of many forests, as eloquently described by Dave Lindorff (see Box 1)

Box 1Spotting the Havoc Wreaked by Climate Change and Development is, Sadly, a Walk in the Park | This Can't Be Happening!

by Dave Lindorff (adapted with permission)

I took a long hike today through a local nature preserve. It was a humid 96° F with the heat index, thanks to the humidity making it feel like 110° — too hot to work on the stone re-pointing job I’m doing on our old stone house. I needed some nature, though, after spending the last few weeks reading and writing about our insane political situation.

Wandering down a path into the woods and following a local stream, though, I found myself getting more troubled than before. These woods, where I’ve walked for years, used to be filled with myriad species of birds — water birds, hawks, songbirds and others, and insects — dragonflies, butterflies, bees and flies of all kinds, as well as frogs, turtles and snakes. I’d usually return from such walks to report having seen a baltimore oriole, a blue heron, a garter or a water snake, a large snapping turtle or one or another kind of hawk. I wouldn’t even report on the butterflies, as they were myriad.

Today though, the forest was quiet. Occasionally I’d hear the sound of some unidentifiable bird, probably a starling or sparrow, but bird sounds were rare. Sightings too. I heard no cries from bluejays or crows, saw no hawks or waterbirds — not even mallard ducks, and heard no songbirds. I saw one small painted turtle sunning itself on a fallen tree in a dammed up part of the stream — a spot that used to be covered with turtles on a day like this. And I heard no frogs, which might explain the lack of any herons or other wading birds. The two creatures I did see were a deer (these apex mammals seem to have made the suburbs home, with no available predator except the automobile to diminish their numbers, and with grass and suburban flower gardens providing abundant food) and a beautiful solitary orange Monarch butterfly (see figure 5), which was flying with more purpose, in almost a straight line down the pathway, than I’ve ever seen a butterfly fly (perhaps it is on it’s lonely way to Mexico hoping to find a mate?). Other than that, there were almost no bugs too. That’s really scary, since bugs, besides pollinating plants, provide that basic protein source for most larger animals up the food chain. I had read that bugs of all kinds are in a dramatic decline all around the globe, and it certainly looks like it if they aren’t even pervasive in a nature preserve where there is no insecticide being used, where grass isn’t cut, and undergrowth is left alone.

I had noticed this decline earlier when we were up in the Catskills where we have a summer house. The streetlight in front of our property, which used to be enveloped in literally thousands of moths, flies and flying beetles during late spring and early summer months, to the delight of the brown bats that dove into the cloud again and again filling their bellies each night, these days is devoid of insects, which is astonishing and, when one thinks of it, terrifying.

As I walked through the nature park, where biting creatures — deer flies and horseflies — used to harass me in years past, I was only visited by one horsefly, which I dispatched as it landed on my arm, thereby worsening the dearth of insects and causing me to feel a little guilty about it.

President John F. Kennedy, looking out the Oval Office window on a rainy day during the depths of the Cold War, asked his science advisor if the rain outside was contaminated by radioactive fallout. Upon hearing a “yes,” he decided, to the shock of his military advisors, to unilaterally call a halt to open-air nuclear testing, and to get the Russians to do the same — which they did. But I’m afraid both the major party candidates running for president this year are such power-hungry narcissists that they are incapable of doing the one thing that might save us, which would be to wake up one morning in the White House next year and, recognizing the looming disaster of climate change, to call for a halt to any further removal of hydrocarbons from the ground. That monarch butterfly I saw — the only one I’ve spotted all summer here in south-eastern Pennsylvania or up in the Catskills, both places they used to be rampant only a few years ago — had the right idea, I suppose: get the hell out of here!

But then, if it manages somehow to make it to the monarch meeting place in Michoacan, a province in Mexico’s central highlands, it may find the ancient pine forest where its forebears used to gather, turning the trees orange with their multitudes, gone (see Figure 5). It turns out that local farmers, desperately poor as NAFTA has destroyed their local subsistence farm economy, are cutting and burning the pine forest there and planting avocado trees, in hopes of earning a better income from that high-priced fruit than from the corn that for generations they used to grow for local consumption. But included among the forest they are destroying to satisfy insatiable first-world guacamole demand in the US and Europe is the butterfly reserve that the monarchs rely on.

Figure 5 Monarch butterflies, against a background of pine trees. http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/12/monarch-butterf053751.html

Rachel Carson kicked off the environmental movement back in 1962 with her book Silent Spring. She was focusing then on the destruction of songbirds by the pervasive use of pesticides. But what I saw on my park stroll was a silence even deeper. It’s not just the birds that are gone now, it’s almost every living creature in the woods! The plants are still there, but as the pests that threaten them — many of them invasive results of globalized trade like the ash borer, the gypsy moth, oak wilt fungus, etc. — attack trees that are also being stressed by climate change with its season-changing warm periods and its periodic droughts — that may not be true for long.

Climate change and forests

The clearance and burning of forests, mostly to grow food, has been an important contributor to climate change; essentially, less carbon is stored in the soil, roots and leaves of crops (or livestock) than in the biomass of forest and the animal life it supported. Excess carbon, formerly held in the forests, shifts to the air and ocean, though some is taken up by non-forest biomass. Peat fires associated with forest clearance and burning, including in South East Asia are another lethal feedback. Harmful, reinforcing (positive) amplification of climate change involving forests is also predicted to add to our peril, such as from drying and burning of the Amazon forest.

Refugees, climate change and increasing warnings

The issues of refugees and climate change are related, although poor governance, inequality and long nursed grievances are additional elements that contribute to the violence, hunger and search for opportunity that drive people to flee or migrate. Despite wearing clothes, humans are largely governed by ancient instincts. This is not meant as a criticism; it is unsurprisingly difficult to collectively avoid or evade our biological heritage.

Our genes and culture have enabled humans to colonise much of the planet and even venture into space. But unless we evolve a new culture of planetary governance our fate appears perilous, as we confront our most fearsome predator; ourselves. The number of high level warnings that we are in trouble, as a global civilisation, is rising.

In the last ten thousand years, known as the Holocene (the period since the last Ice Age), Nature has been relatively benign and abundant. It is true that sea level rose rapidly and substantially at the dawn of the Holocene, as glaciers melted and oceans warmed, cutting off numerous islands from their respective continental masses, including Kangaroo Island, Tasmania, New Guinea and the British Isles. This was disruptive to humans (leading, after several thousand years of struggle, to the extinction of people on Kangaroo Island, but there was at that time little if any permanent human coastal settlement. The level of coastal disruption then seems trivial in comparison to the impending crisis of coastal inundation that is already emerging, especially in low- lying regions such as Florida, Bangladesh and many deltas. Sea level rise, conservatively estimated to approach a metre by 2100 is predicted to cost billions of dollars, to displace millions, and to reduce global food security.

Despite numerous famines, wars, earthquakes, plagues and other forms of hardship, humanity has, collectively, flourished during the Holocene, enabling an explosion in our numbers from fewer than ten million to about 7.5 billion today. However, unless we quickly alter our path, on a scale that today seems almost unimaginable, we may leave this “sweet spot” behind. Future Nature will not be so benign. Some fear that civilisation will collapse. We may to risk a new Dark Age

Regional and planetary overload

I have mentioned that civilization is in an emerging crisis. However, many readers will dispute this, especially in Australia, which is still largely protected from these global forces, despite the increasing expenditure of our tax revenue on “border security” including “offshore processing”. In total, such expenditure – separate to defence spending – now exceeds that which Australia contributes to foreign aid. This increasing expenditure is one symptom of the emerging crisis. It may reassure those of you are skeptical that although “crisis” is often interpreted as something evolving very rapidly, it is more likely that the crisis of “planetary overload” will unfold over several more decades, and perhaps longer. But we cannot be complacent, events could turn very violent much more quickly. For tens of millions of people, the crisis has already commenced.

Pope Francis has stated several times that we are in the early stages of World War III, including in 20148 and again in July 20169 when he warned “when I speak of war I speak of wars over interests, money, resources, not religion.” Also in July 2016, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, a candidate for UN secretary general, stated10 that the United Nations “must do a better job at combating the root causes of violent extremism and global insecurity”.

Inequality, terrorism and the failure of globalisation

Links between inequality, resentment, double standards and terrorism have long been identified as important by analysts critical of capitalism and western “exceptionalism”, but until recently, these critiques have had with little impact. However, events including the popularity of anti-establishment politicians including Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and in Australia, the rise of opponents of free trade including the teams led by Nick Xenophon and Pauline Hansen are consequences of growing inequality, as was Brexit, when UK voters to leave the European Union.

There is a grudging realisation by many for whom globalisation has delivered increased bounty not only that this wealth has been unfairly distributed, but that, sooner or later, this growing gap is untenable, causing unliveable reductions in social cohesion. There is, as yet, less understanding that global inequality is a driver of terrorism and insecurity, but it is encouraging that both Pope Francis and Helen Clark are urging consideration of this possibility.

A world record of refugees

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of an emerging global crisis, even beyond the increasing frequency of Islamist-inspired violence in many countries, is the explosion in the number of refugees. On World Refugee day, June 20, 2016, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees announced that at the close of 2015 there were over 65 million displaced people on the planet, the majority of whom are children. This represents an increase of over 50% from the end of 2011 . Links between this increase, global environmental change and piecemeal “planetary overload” are rarely made, but in fact the increase in refugee numbers is neither random nor coincidental.

Instead, this increase is a largely foreseeable consequence of planetary scaled “eco-social” (socio-ecological) factors. These deep factors, which operate in several pockets of “regional overload” (see table 1) are largely ignored, not only by journalists, but by spokespeople for governments, United Nations agencies and even for aid and environmental organisations.

Table 1: Examples of “regional overload” which contribute to current and future refugee production. Fertility rates (for 2015) are from the CIA Factbook.11

Climate change

influence?

Other

environmental

Government Fertility

influence?

Syria Worsening

drought (climate change related)

Aquifer depletion

(drought, high population)

Lack of equitable

governance

Comparatively

high

Burundi Not obvious Scarcity of fertile

land (per person)

Long history of

ethnic tension

Very high (6.1)
Somalia Drought Fisheries

plundered by other states

Chaotic – failed

state

Very high (6.0)
Sahel (eg

Niger)

Drought Very high (Niger

6.8)

South Sudan Drought Civil war, distrust,

new state

Very high (5.3)
Ethiopia Recent El Niño

famine

Very high (5.2)
Myanmar Not apparent civil wars, hatred

and fear of Rohingya

Moderate (2.2)
Bangladesh Sea level rise Land scarcity Increasing

Islamism

Now slowing

(2.4)

Instead, there is a form of conspiracy of silence in which commentators act as though there are no regional (or global) limits to human population size, even when areas are shared by rivalrous groups with marked differences in allegiance and, sometimes, appearance, ethnicity, culture, economic status and religion. But the growth in refugee numbers is not just from intolerance; it is also a consequence of our species’ disrespect and disconnect for Nature, as well as scanty willingness for more affluent and powerful groups to dilute their relative advantages.

Human Population size

For over fifty years there has been concern about the size of the growing global population. Although many fears were expressed, prior to the heyday of the Green Revolution, that humanity faced the prospect of very serious famine, there is consensus today that humans today can grow enough food to keep far more than even the current population alive, were it evenly distributed.

However, resources, including of food, are not evenly distributed. Furthermore, humans seek far more than basic nutritional subsistence. Human “carrying capacity” is determined by far more than food supply. Our species also crave affluence, prestige and luxuries, whether country houses at the seaside, or coconuts on tiny Pacific islands. The supply of these luxuries is far more restricted than of staples. The social anthropologist Mary Douglas gives several compelling examples (see Box 2).

Box 2: The complexity of human numbers

The Ndembu are a tribe, in Zambia, who (at least at the time of the study) lived at a population density of 3-6 per square mile and who relied on cassava as their staple crop. Douglas comments that cassava is very easy to grow, and does not require labour-intensive cultivation. She also reports that the Ecological Survey of Northern Rhodesia (sic) estimated that using traditional techniques their tribal area could support at least three times its population density. However, although cassava is their staple, Douglas states that they are not very interested in cassava (do you blame them?) Instead, they are passionately interested in hunting. But game is scarce in their region; were their population higher, game would be even more scarce.

At the time of Douglas’s research, a trade-off seems to have been found. The population of the Ndembu is higher than possible from reliance on hunting alone (for the area they dominate). However, the number of Ndembu is lower than theoretically possible, due to their collective appreciation of hunting, which can be considered a scarce luxury for this group.

Tikopia

This tiny (5 sq kms) Pacific island is 700 miles from the nearest big island, and has for centuries produced all of its own food. In 1929 Douglas reports that its population was about 1,300 and that it was fully conscious of pressure on resources, with strong social disapproval for couples who reared families of more than two, or at most three children. Population numbers were restricted by contraception, abortion, infanticide and an ancient custom of pushing out to sea undesirables such as thieves.

Their staples were fish, root crops (taro and yams) and tree crops (breadfruit and coconuts). Pigs, once kept, had been removed, apparently as people realized more humans could be fed without them. Of these crops, coconuts were the most valued, producing cream which enhanced the palatability of all the other available food.

Like the Ndembu, the population of Tikopia, could have been larger – but there would be fewer coconuts to share. Furthermore, Tikopia (like most locations) is vulnerable to climatic events, such as cyclones, which can damage crops, including coconuts. Douglas argued that Tikopians consciously avoided a higher population not only to ensure a sufficient supply of coconuts, but also to have some spare, in case of disasters; a form of insurance. Nonetheless, of course, the Tikopians could not have supported a much larger population.

Trading Nature for people

I recently had a conversation with an Australian Aboriginal woman who mentioned, without prompting, how selfish humans have been to increase our population at the expense of Nature. She went on to describe the respect Indigenous people have for many natural elements.

I cannot speak for her people, but I believe that there is a great deal we could learn from them, especially from their traditional customs and knowledge. There is, for example, convincing evidence that many Australian Aboriginal tribes – perhaps almost all – had various methods, including customs and taboos, which slowed human population growth, enabling adequate, even abundant resources, for people, even during climatic extremes. Slowing human population growth also reduces the chance of other species being driven towards extinction, although it is clear that many species did vanish due to the impact of Australia’s small Indigenous population, including megafauna, the thylacine and the devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), though each of the latter survived for a while on Tasmania; one still does.

How distrust of the other drives us near the cliff

These three examples (the Ndembu, the Tikopians and the Australian Aboriginals) give insight into the global crisis that exists of both overpopulation, overconsumption and damage to Nature. But the global population problem appears insoluble, without changes in attitude which seem currently implausible.

Humans do not seek or willingly accept to behave like bricks in a wall, content to be crammed into one spot, acting politely until their natural death, even if regularly fed a poor diet and given minimal other necessities, such as basic shelter, even if some people do behave a little like this when forced to, particularly if conditioned to endure scarcity from birth. An example is the inhabitants of Gaza, with a population density of almost 5,000 per square km12 (Australia has about 3 people per square km). This is not the highest in the world; Macao, Monaco, Hong Kong and Singapore are higher. However, inhabitants in those places have a far higher standard of living and more mobility.

Instead, humans use their ingenuity and co-operate with similar groups to form alliances, seeking to increase their chance of additional resources. If it is accepted that most (if not virtually all) humans will seek and accept living standards that are greater than needed to simply maintain existence then it follows that competition for scarce resources is inevitable, even if basic resources (such as nutrients) are abundant. Such competition can be reduced by population restricting strategies adopted by Australian Aboriginals (living traditionally) and the Tikopians, and the Ndembu.

In theory, global competition over scarce resources (likely to become increasingly scarce, as a result of climate change as well as population increase) could be tempered by an accelerated global demographic transition (a switch from above replacement fertility to below 2.1 children per woman). In reality, this is unlikely, due to the many forms of inequality which exist, such as of wealth, income, life expectancy and access to leisure and opportunity (see Box 3).

Box 3: The demographic dividend

Although regional demographic transitions can deliver “demographic dividends” which accelerate the accumulation of wealth and development several factors operate to obstruct this, especially in non-homogenous societies. Of course, if each group were to co-operate by slowing fertility in parallel then both groups might win, illustrating an example of the prisoner’s dilemma and avoiding what Hardin called “the tragedy of the commons” Over sufficient time, populations which reap the demographic dividend (e.g. Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and China) are likely to be more powerful on a per capita basis than populations which fail to undergo the transition (e.g. Nigeria and many other African nations). There are exceptions, such as Saudi Arabia, a population which has considerable wealth and influence, despite a comparatively high fertility rate. But this wealth is not because of the demographic dividend, but instead its enormous natural resource base.

In much of the world, especially in most of Africa and the Middle East, the lack of cultural and other forms of homogeneity helps to thwart a rapid and widespread demographic transition. In such places, any group which lowers its birth rate (even if to seek long-term per capita benefits) appears to face (and perhaps does initiate) short term risk at the hands of its main competitor, whose population will continue to rise at a higher rate. This differential in population growth rate (and perhaps of total population size) creates the perception, and possibility the reality of vulnerability.

Conclusion: fighting for humanity

Chico Mendes, Bob Such and René Dubos

Chico Mendes, the Brazilian union leader and rubber trapper, is an icon for environmentalism, especially in Brazil. His murder occurred because of competition over resources that in turn underpinned the livelihood of other groups. Although some experts challenge the scarcity arguments, claiming (curiously) that conflict often arises instead from abundance, this is surely less plausible than the converse. Competition over limited resources is the heart of evolutionary theory. Parents, martyrs and saints may sacrifice themselves for another individual, but such events are very rare.

Humans have invented opera, nuclear weapons and spaceflight, remarkable for a species of primate, descended from trees. At its higher level of achievement humanity has made incredible technological and organisational progress. However, collectively, we seem to be so entranced by this technology, including of virtual reality, that many of us have forgotten our absolute dependence on Nature. While new technology such as photovoltaic cells and electric cars are promising to slow the rate of climate change changes in attitude are required if civilisation is to survive the challenges which our cavalier attitudes to he protection of Nature have set in place.

It is imperative that we value and protect the Nature that remains, including our forests, both urban and otherwise. Yet, Australians have, in recent decades, almost led the world as carbon criminals, on a per person basis. Our record on biodiversity protection is also poor. The Great Barrier Reef, still a natural wonder of the world, is increasingly affected by coral bleaching, from a combination of warmer temperatures and farming runoff. Australian government policies are trying to reduce the latter, but at the same time perversely support a massive expansion of coal mining, which of course will exacerbate climate change. High sea surface temperatures are also attributed as the main cause in the recently observed, unprecedented in scale die-off of mangrove forests in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Political double standards like this have to shift, but are unlikely to do so from the “bottom up”, on a global scale. The poorest fraction of humanity (at least 25%, perhaps 50%) lack the means to have much influence, especially when so many politicians are flagrantly non-democratic and corrupt. If we are to survive as a civilisation then beneficial change must be driven by “middle out” strategies – led by people with education and means of influence, such as people reading this.

Politicians who value Nature, like the late Bob Such (1944-2014) are rare. Even so, the lawyers and unionists who dominate our parliaments, and who largely appear indifferent to Nature, must listen if enough people show they care enough.

The final word is to René Dubos. He called on individuals to initiate actions that would ‘put fundamental needs of life before claims of profit, prestige or power.' Solutions would not come from “the official proclamations made in great universities, policy statements from governments nor recommendations from expert panels. Rather it is all the motivated individuals of the world who can save it.

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