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Why has nature become a niche issue?

It will be no surprise that a recent analysis of biodiversity funding round the world found that Australia was among the 40 countries spending least in comparison to our global legacy of species. Now…

Australia used to care about conservation but do cuts to the Biodiversity Fund show we’ve turned our back on nature? Peter9914/Flickr

It will be no surprise that a recent analysis of biodiversity funding round the world found that Australia was among the 40 countries spending least in comparison to our global legacy of species. Now, thanks to the axing of the Biodiversity Fund to compensate for lost income from shifting to a floating carbon price, we may join countries like Iraq and the Congo at the very bottom of that list.

The tragedy for Australia’s animals and plants, and for those who value their persistence, is that this is seen as politically possible. How is it that a country in which stopping the damming of the Franklin River and the logging of Queensland’s rainforests were once seen as winning political causes, can now cut A$213 million for biodiversity conservation as an act of political expediency?

There certainly seems to be little resistance from the conservative parties. To do so would confuse an image that is increasingly anti-environment. The Opposition cannot wait to return control of environmental decision-making to the states, regardless of the consequences. Similarly one cannot imagine their colleagues in Queensland, NSW or Victoria would greatly mourn the loss of a program that could possibly impinge on their aspirations for resource development and the primacy of grazing over other environmental values.

So will there be any backlash for the cuts? Where are today’s Liberals for the Forests who brought down the Court government in Western Australia? Has the rump of a green Labor faction any traction under the new Rudd hegemony? One suspects not. Biodiversity, at its cost, has gone from being a mainstream issue for which all parties felt a need to pay at least a token interest to one now seen as increasingly the province of the Greens. And the Greens, naturally, are happy to represent it as strongly as they can.

Ironically, however, I suspect the very strength of the Greens has weakened the political voice for environmental issues further along the political spectrum. Branch meetings of the National party may hear even less often from farmers concerned about rare species on their properties. Unionists who once led campaigns for green space must now get short shrift in Sussex Street.

Over-egging of the pudding by conservation advocates has not helped. Claims of impending environmental catastrophe have often failed to eventuate in a political timeframe. Climate change is coming but we are not going to cook or drown tomorrow. Peak oil seems perpetually postponed. These are desperate, real issues, but they are not The Day after Tomorrow.

In the same vein some groups unhelpfully exaggerate to get money. A recent TV advertisement claimed orang-utans will be extinct in the wild by 2015. This is untrue and those giving money to the appeal will have done so under false pretences.

Exaggeration detracts from real environmental tragedies, like the first extinction of an Australian mammal in 40 years. Loss of the Christmas Island Pipistrelle was predicted, preventable and on land managed by the Commonwealth for conservation. When it went there was no coronial inquiry, no heads rolled, extinction became politically possible.

At the same time the conservation movement rarely leavens warnings with messages of hope. Understandably, school children dread their gloomy environmental classes. Conservation is in danger of replacing economics as the dismal science. Yet Australia has been extraordinarily successful in some areas of conservation. For instance the rescue of Macquarie Island from feral animals by the Tasmanian Parks service has been nothing short of extraordinary. Politicians, of whatever stripe, need praise and reinforcement for their achievements.

Scientists have also contributed. Conservation biologists tend to paint the bleakest picture of the future. And we alienate with our language. We talk of biodiversity when the public worries about koalas and animals and plants they can see and touch and imbue with human qualities. Most of the political strength of animals and plants comes from a feeling of moral outrage at the impending loss of something loved. A “Biodiversity” Fund is evidently expendable. I wonder if a fund that reflects society’s real affection for nature would have been less so.

Finally I think our primary piece of environmental legislation, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, has been letting down conservation by heavily enforcing the trivial at the expense of the important. Certainly recent moves to expand strategic assessments should lead to more sensible planning, and the Act has proved critical to constraining some potentially disastrous developments. Nevertheless a history of irritating and expensive conditions placed on localised developments has created incentives for companies to lobby for far weaker environmental laws.

The Greens will fight hard to recover the lost Biodiversity Fund. However the Greens do not own the environment, and their vote may have peaked. For me at least, protecting animals and plants is fundamental to civilization, a unique privilege and responsibility of humanity. Like the empowerment of minorities and the expression of creativity through the arts, it should be an ideal above party politics, and an aspiration of all political parties.

A fund for preventing extinctions and keeping precious common species common should be a core responsibility for government, an appropriate locked-in use of our taxes, and a mechanism to leave a healthy diverse landscape to our descendants.

Join the conversation

34 Comments sorted by

  1. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    Hi Stephen

    Thanks you for this. I am not sure whether you meant it the exactly the way you wrote it at the end of the article, but I am going to disagree with you slightly about the need to ‘protect’ animals and plants as being fundamental to civilisation.

    To me at least, there is a difference between ‘protect’ – which implies preservation; and to ‘conserve’ – which allows sustainable use. Certainly I would like to suggest that conservation and that any use should be sustainable, but to adopt…

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    1. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Now that is a well thought out and written comment.

      Gerard Dean
      Glen Iris

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    2. John Foley

      Various ...

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Maybe it needs to be personal? Seems to be too easy for our largely urban populace to neglect that which the know little of and see even less of. Something politicians are all too well aware of, cutting funds to conservation of more years than i care to recall.

      It might also be a question of time. And pragmatism as you mentioned. We can't keep doing what we've been doing, its just not working.

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  2. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    Why don’t ecologists and biologists go on strike regards the issue?

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale, the same could be said for most sectors of society not just the scientists.

      Quote.... "Finally I think our primary piece of environmental legislation, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, has been letting down conservation by heavily enforcing the trivial at the expense of the important."

      Same for state acts as well.

      Read this.....

      Quote..... The current proposal, awaiting approval from Federal Environment Minister Mark Butler, is to dredge three million…

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Why ecologists and biologist don’t go on strike has certainly intrigued me.

      If they know that action A results in consequence B, and consequence B is a negative, then simply saying that consequence B is a negative is not enough.

      Eventually, ecologists and biologist have to flex their muscles.

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    3. John Foley

      Various ...

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale, I went from being an ecologist to working in the emergency services sector ... and it hurts me to say it. So i have gone from being very disappointed about their lack of care of our natural heritage, to realising that their regard for our lives are also somewhat lacking.

      They only time they will care when an angry public beat a path to their door demanding answers. Going to take a lot more time and effort than a strike to get to that point. And a much bigger cross section of the voting public. How thats done, i wish i knew!!!

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    4. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to John Foley

      I will never vote for any political party ever again after the Gillard government, (but vote for independents only), which gives me an objective viewpoint regards political parties.

      It does appear that political parties will use scientists when it suits them.

      For example, they might use scientists to develop a military weapon, but ignore scientists if they have concerns about environmental degradation.

      It really is up to scientists to inform politicians about being used and misused, and if politicians do not listen, then the scientists go on strike.

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    5. John Foley

      Various ...

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      I'd love to see some strong, miltant collective action from scientists. But, who is trying that on and winning at the moment(aside from the business and mining lobby types)? The major parties have done a great job of neutering collective action.

      Maybe nothing much will work until political parties are turned on their heads.

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  3. Peter Wilkin

    Australian Realist

    Having done a bit of personal research lately into the workings of local councils in this country I feel I can safely say that people are still very much concerned about their environment. Well the councils are anyhow. Their literature is filled with the relevant rhetoric and I sense that behind that is a genuine understanding of their duty of care and the importance of leaving an intact environmental legacy for the future.

    This article helps raise an important alarm because the higher levels of government must be seen to support the popular concern in a material way with funding for precisely the sort of projects that can't be managed by engaged and capable volunteers at the local level, projects like Macquarie Island as mentioned.

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  4. R. Ambrose Raven

    none

    Don’t overlook the evil influence of the media. People will – reluctantly, perhaps - move with their perception of the consensus. Media misrepresentations matter. Not only can misinformation be notoriously difficult to dislodge, but worse, attempting to refute myths can reinforce them.

    While the cases of people driven to suicide or other extremes through trial by media are well-known, the worse impact is where highly beneficial opportunities for social good are closed off, or social divisions…

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  5. Wade Macdonald

    Technician

    Great article. Finally someone who sees where, when and why conservation groups appear mentally belligerent to rational conservation needs.

    quote.....In the same vein some groups unhelpfully exaggerate to get money. A recent TV advertisement claimed orang-utans will be extinct in the wild by 2015. This is untrue and those giving money to the appeal will have done so under false pretences.Exaggeration detracts from real environmental tragedies

    Yep and.....

    Federal marine parks had 99% generic online conservation submissions. Many from foreigners, many who would of been under voting age who were misled through presumptions of fear and misrepresentations of reality. Labor and the greens used this as advocacy against sound local stakeholders advice and that is unacceptable policy.

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      A minority are granted but plenty are not rec fishers but criminals. Only policing will stop them not marine parks. If anything marine parks help isolate these activities away from other law biding ocean citizens.

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    2. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      You are correct about policing being needed to stop some of the illegal activities which are conducted by some fisherman. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot going on in my experience.

      But my point was that while some environmental groups make exaggerated claims in order to secure funding, other lobby groups like recreational fisherman are not above making similarly exaggerated claims.

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    3. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      True mike, making exaggerated claims to secure funding is one thing. Making exaggerated claims by utilising overseas populations to drown out oz stakeholders and hence sound local Australian policy is another matter.

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    4. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Not sure what you mean Wade, but we are a globalised society after all. There is nothing wrong with using overseas populations - they are stakeholders in conservation issues in Australia as well.

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    5. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Nice guy Mike?

      The basis for many generic online conservation group submissions were emotive lies.

      Myself and other stakeholders informed government of what was being said on foreign websites to get submissions to ban sustainable aussies from their own waters.

      Your defence of such bullish tactics by the international conservation movement is a disgrace.

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    6. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      "....Nice guy Mike?...."

      Why thank you Wade. You probably are quite nice as well.

      "....Your defence of such bullish tactics by the international conservation movement is a disgrace...."

      Nice strawman Wade. Did you have to buy lots of petrol to set it on fire? Because - and stick with me here - see if you can find anywhere in any of my posts where I defend any 'bullish tactics'. What I said - very clearly so that even someone with the reading capacity of a primary school student could…

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  6. Chris Owens

    Professional

    I hold little hope that politicians will do anything to arrest the slide. The conservatives are now anti environment as typified by Baillieu's liberals who went to the last Victorian election without any environment policy whatsoever. Most of its actions since taking government has borne this out. Labor is only marginally better as evidenced by the cuts to the biodiversity fund. In Tasmania the current Labor government has ignored expert advice to list the Eastern quoll as endangered for seemingly political reasons. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-12/fears-the-government-is-ignoring-the-plight-of-the/4817736 We are now at the very real risk of losing all Dasyurids.

    Most people are now disconnected from nature and therefore the environment is not a vote changer.

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  7. George Michaelson

    Person

    Attempts to define a financial value on biodiversity have been mixed in my opinion. Its clear that people cannot relate well to the net present value of some activity, facing the long term value of the biome.

    Any definition of *realizable* value in the environment as itself invites attempts to extract that value, which of course immediately de-values it in some cases. So you have a tension that the accounting practices which say "the tarkine is immensely valuable to us all" then hit "we can do…

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  8. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    Brilliant article, I pray you are wrong about the greens hitting their peak

    if we are trapped in this 2 party system we are doomed, neither of the major party's have any interest in representing us

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  9. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    Two points. 1. "There certainly seems to be little resistance from the conservative parties." Of greater interest is that the conservation movement - greenies and their protest groups - are nowhere to be seen or heard on this issue. This says more about the pro-ALP pro-Greens politicking that such groups stand for than their pro-environment commitment.
    2. "Where are today’s Liberals for the Forests who brought down the Court government in Western Australia?" Sorry but this is an urban myth (I was…

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  10. Jason Begg
    Jason Begg is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Perpetually Baffled Lawnmower Man

    Great article, thanks for posting it.

    I must admit to a growing sense of dismay with the contemporary Liberal Party attitude to environmental issues. I dread the prospect of greater environmental powers devolving to state governments. The potential for disaster is significant.

    Equally appalling is Rudd's expedient gutting of the Biodiversity Fund.

    I personally hope that the environment starts to be recognised for the role that it plays in the economy. It just seems to be taken for granted. As humans we need a full, robust, varied nature to fully enjoy the magnificence and mystery of life. I agree with your concluding comments. It is imperative that we 'leave a healthy diverse landscape to our descendants'.

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Jason Begg

      Labor are no different on environmental issues Jason. Commercial fishing under labor in S.A. and federally has seen some species overfished. Instead of addressing the cause of this problem however, they just cut recreational fishing bag limits, force bans on rec fishers over holiday periods etc to offset their destruction.

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  11. Peter Bridgewater

    Visiting Professor at United Nations University

    "our primary piece of environmental legislation, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, has been letting down conservation by heavily enforcing the trivial at the expense of the important" is a key point here and so very, very true. the EPBC was a solution looking for a problem, and since then has caused more problems, and will inevitably cause more. Gradual reshaping since its inception has helped, but its not yet there. The key issue, which i alluded to in my recent piece on Parks, is that legal frames dont always work well for biodiversty conservation and management, something poorly appreciated by politicians, and in turn by the general public. anyway, nice article, but, yes as Mike Swinbourne commented, less of the P words, please!

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  12. Lucas Bluff

    Ecologist

    Good article. I tend to agree that conservation academics and land managers have done ourselves a disservice in relying on abstractions like 'biodiversity', 'sustainability' and 'resilience'. Not that a top-down approach is wrong, but nor does it cut through to the public.

    Single-species work is easier to communicate, but it is also expensive. Where we may have missed a trick is that the expense of on-ground work is largely in labour. This is exactly the situation that the building and manufacturing industries use as an argument FOR favourable treatment. A program of seasonal, entry-level field jobs could be a real win for threatened species and (largely regional) young people. It seemes that the Coalition has cottoned on to a similar idea with their green army policy, but unfortunately it seems directed at rehabilitation works, not threatened species.

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  13. John Doyle
    John Doyle is a Friend of The Conversation.

    architect

    All this is depressingly familiar.
    However the long term picture could well be infinitely worse.
    What is humanity going to do to preserve the environment and biodiversity when it is faced with it's own survival? We are still in thrall to the mantra of ever expanding "growth". Look how the commentariat responds to threats of recession in the economy. Unless we soon choose to end this mathematically impossible option we will end up with environmental devastation.

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  14. Greg Miles

    Conservation lobbyist

    Excellent article Stephen

    A couple of quick points:

    I cannot help but think that the word "biodiversity" as in Biodiversity Fund is part of the problem. If one were to scour the English language to find a word that turned off young people and the uninformed masses - you could not do much better than "biodiversity." I preferred 'wildlife' when it was in fashion. I wonder if the wider community would be so unconcerned if the Govt. announced that it was going to axe the "Wildlife Conservation…

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  15. Shirley Birney

    logged in via email @tpg.com.au

    The reality is that agriculture and livestock grazing has wiped out the habitats of native animals and plants and the industry continues to threaten Australia’s biodiversity. Despite the massive programmes of inhumane poisoning of wild and feral dogs, these animals have proliferated to plague proportions, a result of easy access to dams, crops and livestock on farming properties. Kangaroos for the same reason have reached plague proportions.

    However, no Australian native animal has hooves…

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  16. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer

    Yes, a very well-considered and thought-provoking article. For me, Greg Miles' response was especially pertinent, as I too feel that the Greens have a paradoxical effect. Their existence gives many people a false sense of satisfaction that a strong group is out there, looking after our natural environment, whereas all the Greens seem to be achieving is to dissipate and weaken any pro-conservation tendency in the major political parties. What lost them my support was when they started pontificating…

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  17. Stephen Garnett

    Professor of Biodiversity and Sustainability at Charles Darwin University

    Thank you all who made comments. The response to the axing of the Biodiversity Fund has been even weaker than I thought. Other issues, such as the new refugee policy, have been occupying the media and the Greens of course, but the amount of fuss over the cutting of the fringe benefits tax has far outstripped outrage over loss of the Biodiversity Fund.

    Of course the loss of $213 million from the biodiversity fund will also mean loss of jobs, particularly from rural and remote areas where most biodiversity…

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