Money can’t buy me love, but you can put a price on a tree



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Mountain ash in the Victorian Central Highlands.
Takver/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Heather Keith, Australian National University; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University, and Michael Vardon, Australian National University

What is something worth? How do you put a dollar value on something like a river, a forest or a reef? When one report announces that the Great Barrier Reef is worth A$56 billion, and another that it’s effectively priceless, what does it mean and can they be reconciled?

This contrast points to fundamentally different notions of value. Environmental accounting is a way of recognising and comparing multiple sources of value, in order to better weigh competing priorities in resource management.

In practice it is sometimes crude, but it’s been standardised internationally and its scope is expanding to include social, cultural, and intrinsic benefits.


Read more: What’s the economic value of the Great Barrier Reef? It’s priceless


Using environmental accounting we’ve investigated the tall, wet forests of Victoria’s Central Highlands to weigh the competing economic cases for continuing native timber harvesting and creating a Great Forest National Park. But first we’ll explain a little more about environmental accounting, and how we put a price on trees.

What we count

Essentially, environmental accounting involves identifying the contributions of the environment to the economy, summarised as gross domestic product (GDP). In Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics standardises the data and reporting of these contributions in the System of National Accounts. The Bureau also produces environmental accounts that extend the range of information presented – e.g. water and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.


Read more: Why we need environmental accounts alongside national accounts


But there are other things of value, like positive environmental and social outcomes, worth incorporating into calculations. Ecosystem accounting gives researchers a framework for doing this, extending the accounting to look at the value of different “ecosystem services” – the contributions of ecosystems to our wellbeing – and not just goods and services captured in our national accounts or environmental accounts.

For example, businesses and homes pay a price for water delivery, but the supplier doesn’t pay for the water that entered the dam. That water is an ecosystem service created by forests and the atmosphere. By assessing costs in the water supply industry, we can estimate the value of the ecosystem service of water provisioning.

The value of Victoria’s Central Highlands

Victoria’s Central Highlands are contested ground. Claims and counter-claims abound between the proponents of native timber production and those who are concerned about the impacts of logging on water supply, climate abatement and threatened species.

Our research has, for the first time, directly compared the economic and environmental values of this ecosystem. It shows that creating a Great Forest National Park is clearly better value.


Read more: Why Victoria needs a Giant Forest National Park


With any change in land management, there will be gains and losses for different people and groups. Assessing these trade-offs is complex, made even more so by patchy and inconsistent data.

Through careful accounting, we synthesised the available data and calculated the annual contributions of industries to GDP. In 2013-14, the latest year for which all financial data were available, these came to A$310 million for water supply, A$312 million for agriculture, A$260 million for tourism and potentially A$49 million for carbon storage. (There is no current market for carbon stored in native forests in Australia – more on that in a minute.)

All of this far exceeds the A$12 million from native timber production. Although timber production is a traditional industry, its contribution to the regional economy is now comparatively small.

The GDP contribution in millions of dollars by primary industries in 2013-14.
Author provided

The industries that use ecosystem services are classified as primary production – agriculture, forestry and water supply. This classification is comprehensive (it covers all economic activities) and mutually exclusive (there is no overlap of categories). Downstream uses of the products from agriculture, forestry and water supply are an important consideration for the industries as a whole, but are included in manufacturing industries and not in ecosystem accounts.

Older forests are more valuable

Native timber production involves clearfell harvesting (removing the majority of trees at the site) and slash burning (using high-intensity fire to burn logging residue and provide an ash bed for regeneration). Regenerating forests are younger, with all trees the same age, and have lower species diversity.

This means these young forests contribute less to biodiversity, carbon storage, water supply and recreation. Therefore harvesting native timber requires a trade-off between these conflicting activities.

Trade-offs between industries in their use of ecosystem services can be complementary (green) or conflicting (red).
Author provided

But more than 60% of the native timber harvested in the Central Highlands is used for pulp. This can be substituted by production from plantations that are more efficient and increased use of recycled paper. Both softwood and hardwood plantations can provide substitute sawlogs.

If we phased out native forest harvesting, increases in the value of water supply and carbon storage would offset the loss of A$12 million per year contributed by the industry. (It would also most likely increase profits for the tourism and plantation timber sectors.)

Older trees use less water than young regrowth, and allowing native forests to age would increase the supply of water to Melbourne’s main reservoirs by an estimated 10.5 gigalitres per year. That’s worth A$8 million per year. Security of water supply for the increasing population of Melbourne is an ever-present concern, particularly with projected decreases in rainfall and streamflow.

Older forests also store more carbon than younger regrowth forests. The federal government’s Emission Reduction Fund does not recognise native forest management as an eligible activity for carbon trading, but if this changed the forest could earn carbon credits worth A$13 million per year. This would provide an ongoing and low-cost source of carbon abatement, which could be used to meet Australia’s emissions reduction targets, while the Victorian government could use the money gained to support an industry transition.

Of course, economic benefit is only one way of looking at land. We know that the Central Highlands is home to unique flora and fauna that cannot be replaced (much of which is increasingly under threat). But careful environmental accounting can help explicitly define the various trade-offs of different activities.

The ConversationIt’s particularly important when legacy industries – like native timber harvesting – are no longer environmentally or economically viable. The accounting reveals the current mix of benefits and costs, allowing management of this area to be reconsidered.

Heather Keith, Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, and Michael Vardon, Visiting Fellow at the Fenner School, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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More than just drains: recreating living streams through the suburbs



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A drain carries water but does little else, but imagine how different the neighbourhood would be if the drain could be transformed into a living stream.
Zoe Myers, Author provided

Zoe Myers, University of Western Australia

Lot sizes and backyards are shrinking in Australia at the same time as building density is increasing. So we cannot afford to overlook the potential of existing – but neglected – spaces in our suburbs, like drains.

In denser living environments, we will need new types of green and open space to meet the needs of residents.

One such overlooked space is the urban water drainage system. As part of my research I’m examining the potential of a co-ordinated and integrated network of suburban streams.


Further reading: If planners understand it’s cool to green cities, what’s stopping them?


The largest water catchment in the Perth metropolitan area is Bayswater Brook (previously called the Bayswater Main Drain). Largely for the purpose of improving water quality, in recent years work has begun to remake drains running through the suburbs into “living streams”.

Aside from the obvious benefits of water purification and stormwater management, these networks of suburban streams can be re-imagined as preferred paths through the neighbourhood.

Using established drainage routes capitalises on their existing connections through a suburb. This network could amplify the connections between parks and other green areas, providing a rich soundscape of birds, frogs and insects, and a diversity of sedges, rushes, melaleucas and other vegetation along the banks.

Look at the big picture

While the conversion of old infrastructure into living streams is not new, it has as-yet-unrealised potential to rehabilitate the large sections of open drainage that run in visible, connected ways through our suburbs. This elevates the idea of a living stream to a multi-layered ecosystem, one that includes multiple drains across the suburb.

The Bayswater Brook permanent drainage system runs through the northeastern suburbs of Perth. These drains can be dangerous and public entry to these areas is prohibited out of necessity.

Access barriers are unsightly but necessary because the existing drains can be dangerous.
Author’s own

The drains run along the rear of mostly low-density housing, hidden from streets.

An aerial view of houses backing onto a 90-metre long open drain in Perth.
Google Earth

Their condition is typically marked by weeds, minimal vegetation and stagnant water.

Fenced-off areas offer no public benefits to the neighbourhood other than drainage.
Zoe Myers, Author provided

The sheer number of these open drains across the metropolitan area offers a compelling opportunity to reconceptualise the system as a holistic and integrated network of ecologically restored streams. This requires co-operation between multiple levels of government.

A project by WaterCorp in Western Australia (which manages drainage infrastructure) has begun inviting local governments to submit proposals for use of the green space around drains. These are currently for small portions of the larger network, such as a pop-up park planned for a basin in Morley.

The benefit of doing this in a co-ordinated way – rather than single stream restoration – lies in the possibilities of making these spaces a genuine alternative to the street.

What are the benefits?

Typical drains (above and below) add very little to neighbourhood amenity.
Zoe Myers, Author provided

Zoe Myers, Author provided

By activating unused, off-limits areas at the back of houses, we can turn public space “inside out”. Providing a sequence of accessible paths creates a new option for pedestrians away from roads and cars, but still with an established, clear route through the suburb. We can have a space that is buffered from traffic noise without the isolation of an empty park segregated from main thoroughfares.

Many studies have convincingly found connections between the sounds of waterscapes and restorative emotional states and views. Having multiple entry and exit points as the streams thread through the suburbs would heighten the spaces’ usefulness as everyday pathways. Children could walk along the streams to school, or adults could take a short cut to catch the bus to work, maximising this kind of beneficial interaction with water.

Recreating natural habitats would also increase biodiversity and create a multi-sensory environment, as well as a cooler micro-climate. That would make it an even more attractive place to be in hot months. Encouraging a more natural flow of water through the streams would also reduce biting midges and mosquitoes, which thrive in stagnant water.


Further reading: Green for wellbeing – science tells us how to design urban spaces that heal us


Potentially the most convincing reason for local governments to rehabilitate drains is that living streams increase neighbourhood property values. Research has shown the effect is significant. In the Perth suburb of Lynwood, for example, median home values within 200 metres of a wetland
restoration site increased by A$17,000 to A$26,000 above
the trend increase for the area.

This in turn can support increased density. High quality nature spaces potentially offset the sacrifice of the usual backyard area, by increasing the number of people with direct access to these spaces.

Turning an urban drain into a living stream opens up a world of possibilities.
Author’s original render

The ConversationThere is a growing imperative to remove the false choice between designing for people or for nature. Remaking our old infrastructure for many new uses offers multiple benefits to our ecology and well-being. When a drain becomes a living stream it doesn’t just provide a new kind of open space but adds a new dimension to enjoying, and moving through, your suburb.

Zoe Myers, Research Associate, Australian Urban Design Research Centre, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tweet streams: how social media can help keep tabs on ecosystems’ health



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Social media posts, such as this image uploaded to Flickr, can be repurposed for reef health monitoring.
Sarah Ackerman/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Susanne Becken, Griffith University; Bela Stantic, Griffith University, and Rod Connolly, Griffith University

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram could be a rich source of free information for scientists tasked with monitoring the health of coral reefs and other environmental assets, our new research suggests.

Ecosystems are under pressure all over the world, and monitoring their health is crucial. But scientific monitoring is very expensive, requiring a great deal of expertise, sophisticated instruments, and detailed analysis, often in specialised laboratories.

This expense – and the need to educate and engage the public – have helped to fuel the rise of citizen science, in which non-specialist members of the public help to make observations and compile data.

Our research suggests that the wealth of information posted on social media could be tapped in a similar way. Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.


Read more: Feeling helpless about the Great Barrier Reef? Here’s one way you can help.


Smartphones and mobile internet connections have made it much easier for citizens to help gather scientific information. Examples of environmental monitoring apps include WilddogScan, Marine Debris Tracker, OakMapper and Journey North, which monitors the movements of Monarch butterflies.

Meanwhile, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr host vast amounts of information. While not posted explicitly for environmental monitoring, social media posts from a place like the Great Barrier Reef can contain useful information about the health (or otherwise) of the environment there.

Picture of health? You can learn a lot from holiday snaps posted online.
Paul Holloway/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Twitter is a good resource for this type of “human sensing”, because data are freely available and the short posts are relatively easy to process. This approach could be particularly promising for popular places that are visited by many people.

In our research project, we downloaded almost 300,000 tweets posted from the Great Barrier Reef between July 1, 2016 and March 17, 2017.

After filtering for relevant keywords such as “fish”, “coral”, “turtle” or “bleach”, we cut this down to 13,344 potentially useful tweets. Some 61% of these tweets had geographic coordinates that allow spatial analysis. The heat map below shows the distribution of our tweets across the region.

Tweet heat map for the Great Barrier Reef.
Author provided

Twitter is known as place for sharing instantaneous opinions, perceptions and experiences. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if someone posts a tweet about the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns they are talking about a nearby part of the reef, so we can use the tweet’s geocoordinates as indicators of the broad geographic area to which the post is referring. Images associated with such tweets would help to verify this assumption.

Our analysis provides several interesting insights. First, keyword frequencies highlight what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef are most talked about, including activities such as diving (876 mentions of “dive” or “diving”, and 300 of “scuba”), features such as “beaches” (2,909 times), and favoured species such as “coral” (434) and “turtles” (378).

The tweets also reveal what is not talked about. For example, the word “bleach” appeared in only 94 of our sampled tweets. Furthermore, our results highlighted what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef people are most happy with, for example sailing and snorkelling, and which elements had negative connotations (such as the number of tweets expressing concern about dugong populations).

Casting the net wider

Clearly, this pool of data was large enough to undertake some interesting analysis. But generally speaking, the findings are more reflective of people’s experiences than of specific aspects of the environment’s health.

The quality of tweet information with regard to relevant incidents or changes could, however, be improved over time, for example with the help of a designated hashtag system that invites people to post their specific observations.


Read more: Survey: two-thirds of Great Barrier Reef tourists want to ‘see it before it’s gone’.


Similar alert systems and hashtags have been developed for extreme events and emergency situations, for example by the New South Wales Fire Service.

Tweets also often contain photographs – as do Instagram and Flickr posts – which can carry useful information. An image-based system, particularly in cases where photos carry time and location stamps, would help to address the lack of expertise of the person posting the image, because scientists can analyse and interpret the raw images themselves.

The Great Barrier Reef is, of course, already extensively monitored. But social media monitoring could be particularly beneficial in countries where more professional monitoring is unaffordable. Popular destinations in the Pacific or Southeast Asia, for example, could tap into social media to establish systems that simultaneously track visitors’ experiences as well as the health of the environment.

The ConversationWhile it is early days and more proof-of-concept research is needed, the technological possibilities of Big Data, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence will almost certainly make socially shared content a useful data source for a wide range of environmental monitoring in the future.

Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University; Bela Stantic, Professor, Director of Big data and smart analytics lab, Griffith University, and Rod Connolly, Professor in Marine Science, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia doesn’t ‘get’ the environmental challenges faced by Pacific Islanders



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Environmental threats in the Pacific Islands can be cultural as well as physical.
Christopher Johnson/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Steven Cork, Australian National University and Kate Auty, University of Melbourne

What actions are required to implement nature-based solutions to Oceania’s most pressing sustainability challenges? That’s the question addressed by the recently released Brisbane Declaration on ecosystem services and sustainability in Oceania.

Compiled following a forum earlier this year in Brisbane, featuring researchers, politicians and community leaders, the declaration suggests that Australia can help Pacific Island communities in a much wider range of ways than simply responding to disasters such as tropical cyclones.

Many of the insights offered at the forum were shocking, especially for Australians. Over the past few years, many articles, including several on The Conversation, have highlighted the losses of beaches, villages and whole islands in the region, including in the Solomons, Catarets, Takuu Atoll and Torres Strait, as sea level has risen. But the forum in Brisbane highlighted how little many Australians understand about the implications of these events.

Over the past decade, Australia has experienced a range of extreme weather events, including Tropical Cyclone Debbie, which hit Queensland in the very week that the forum was in progress. People who have been directly affected by these events can understand the deep emotional trauma that accompanies damage to life and property.

At the forum, people from several Pacific nations spoke personally about how the tragedy of sea-level rise is impacting life, culture and nature for Pacific Islanders.

One story, which has become the focus of the play Mama’s Bones, told of the deep emotional suffering that results when islanders are forced to move from the land that holds their ancestors’ remains.

The forum also featured a screening of the film There Once Was an Island, which documents people living on the remote Takuu Atoll as they attempt to deal with the impact of rising seas on their 600-strong island community. Released in 2011, it shows how Pacific Islanders are already struggling with the pressure to relocate, the perils of moving to new homes far away, and the potentially painful fragmentation of families and community that will result.

There Once Was an Island.

Their culture is demonstrably under threat, yet many of the people featured in the film said they receive little government or international help in facing these upheavals. Australia’s foreign aid budgets have since shrunk even further.

As Stella Miria-Robinson, representing the Pacific Islands Council of Queensland, reminded participants at the forum, the losses faced by Pacific Islanders are at least partly due to the emissions-intensive lifestyles enjoyed by people in developed countries.

Australia’s role

What can Australians do to help? Obviously, encouraging informed debate about aid and immigration policies is an important first step. As public policy researchers Susan Nicholls and Leanne Glenny have noted,
in relation to the 2003 Canberra bushfires, Australians understand so-called “hard hat” responses to crises (such as fixing the electricity, phones, water, roads and other infrastructure) much better than “soft hat” responses such as supporting the psychological recovery of those affected.

Similarly, participants in the Brisbane forum noted that Australian aid to Pacific nations is typically tied to hard-hat advice from consultants based in Australia. This means that soft-hat issues – like providing islanders with education and culturally appropriate psychological services – are under-supported.

The Brisbane Declaration calls on governments, aid agencies, academics and international development organisations to do better. Among a series of recommendations aimed at preserving Pacific Island communities and ecosystems, it calls for the agencies to “actively incorporate indigenous and local knowledge” in their plans.

At the heart of the recommendations is the need to establish mechanisms for ongoing conversations among Oceanic nations, to improve not only understanding of each others’ cultures but of people’s relationships with the environment. Key to these conversations is the development of a common language about the social and cultural, as well as economic, meaning of the natural environment to people, and the building of capacity among all nations to engage in productive dialogue (that is, both speaking and listening).

This capacity involves not only training in relevant skills, but also establishing relevant networks, collecting and sharing appropriate information, and acknowledging the importance of indigenous and local knowledge.

Apart from the recognition that Australians have some way to go to put themselves in the shoes of our Pacific neighbours, it is very clear that these neighbours, through the challenges they have already faced, have many valuable insights that can help Australia develop policies, governance arrangements and management approaches in our quest to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.


The ConversationThis article was co-written by Simone Maynard, Forum Coordinator and Ecosystem Services Thematic Group Lead, IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.

Steven Cork, Adjunct Associate Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Kate Auty, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Scientific integrity must be defended, our planet depends on it



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To conserve Earth’s remarkable species, such as the violet sabrewing, we must also defend the importance of science.
Jeremy Kerr, Author provided

Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Kerr, and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

Science is the best method we have for determining what is likely to be true. The knowledge gained from this process benefits society in a multitude of ways, including promoting evidence-based decision-making and management. Nowhere is this more important than conservation, as the intensifying impacts of the Anthropocene increasingly threaten the survival of species.

But truth can be inconvenient: conservation goals sometimes seem at odds with social or economic interests. As a result, scientific evidence may be ignored or suppressed for political reasons. This has led to growing global trends of attacking scientific integrity.

Recent assaults on science and scientists under Donald Trump’s US administration are particularly extreme, but extend far more broadly. Rather than causing scientists to shrink from public discussions, these abuses have spurred them and their professional societies to defend scientific integrity.

Among these efforts was the recent March for Science. The largest pro-science demonstration in history, this event took place in more than 600 locations around the world.

We propose, in a new paper in Conservation Biology, that scientists share their experiences of defending scientific integrity across borders to achieve more lasting success. We summarise eight reforms to protect scientific integrity, drawn from lessons learned in Australia, Canada and the US.

March for science in Melbourne.
John Englart (Takver)

What is scientific integrity?

Scientific integrity is the ability to perform, use and disseminate scientific findings without censorship or political interference. It requires that government scientists can communicate their research to the public and media. Such outbound scientific communication is threatened by policies limiting scientists’ ability to publish, publicise or even mention their research findings.

Public access to websites or other sources of government scientific data have also been curtailed. Limiting access to taxpayer-funded information in this way undermines citizens’ ability to participate in decisions that affect them, or even to know why decisions are being made.

News of the rediscovery of the shrub Hibbertia fumana (left) in Australia was delayed until a development at the site of rediscovery had been permitted. Political considerations delayed protection of the wolverine (right) in the United States.
Wolverine – U.S. National and Park Service. _Hibbertia fumana_ – A. Orme

A recent case of scientific information being suppressed concerns the rediscovery, early in 2017, of the plant Hibbertia fumana in New South Wales. Last seen in 1823, 370 plants were found.

Rather than publicly celebrate the news, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage was reportedly asked to suppress the news until after a rail freight plan that overlapped with the plants’ location had been approved.

Protecting scientists’ right to speak out

Scientists employed by government agencies often cannot discuss research that might relate to their employer’s policies. While it may not be appropriate for scientists to weigh in on policy recommendations – and, of course, constant media commentaries would be chaos – the balance has tipped too far towards restriction. Many scientists cannot publicly refer to their research, or that of others, let alone explain the significance of the findings.

To counter this, we need policies that support scientific integrity, an environment of transparency and the public’s right to access scientific information. Scientists’ right to speak freely should be included in collective bargaining agreements.

Scientific integrity requires transparency and accountability. Information from non-government scientists, through submitted comments or reviews of draft policies, can inform the policy process.

Although science is only one source of influence on policy, democratic processes are undermined when policymakers limit scrutiny of decision-making processes and the role that evidence plays in them.

Let science inform policy

Independent reviews of new policy are a vital part of making evidence-based decisions. There is room to broaden these reviews, inviting external organisations to give expert advice on proposed or existing policies. This also means transparently acknowledging any perceived or actual vested interests.

Australian governments often invite scientists and others to contribute their thoughts on proposed policy. The Finkel Review, for example, received 390 written submissions. Of course, agencies might not have time to respond individually to each submission. But if a policy is eventually made that seems to contradict the best available science, that agency should be required to account for that decision.

Finally, agencies should be proactively engaging with scientific groups at all stages of the process.

Active advocacy

Strengthening scientific integrity policies when many administrations are publicly hostile to science is challenging. Scientists are stuck reactively defending protective policies. Instead, they should be actively advocating for their expansion.

The goal is to institutionalise a culture of scientific integrity in the development and implementation of conservation policies.

A transnational movement to defend science will improve the odds that good practices will be retained and strengthened under more science-friendly administrations.

The monarch butterfly, now endangered in Canada, and at risk more broadly.
Jeremy Kerr

Many regard science as apolitical. Even the suggestion of publicly advocating for integrity or evidence-based policy and management makes some scientists deeply uncomfortable. It is telling that providing factual information for policy decisions and public information can be labelled as partisan. Nevertheless, recent research suggests that public participation by scientists, if properly framed, does not harm their credibility.

Scientists can operate objectively in conducting research, interpreting discoveries and publicly explaining the significance of the results. Recommendations for how to walk such a tricky, but vital, line are readily available.

Scientists and scientific societies must not shrink from their role, which is more important than ever. They have a responsibility to engage broadly with the public to affirm that science is indispensable for evidence-based policies and regulations. These critical roles for scientists help ensure that policy processes unfold in plain sight, and consequently help sustain functioning, democratic societies.


The ConversationThe authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dr Carlos Carroll, a conservation biologist at the Klamath Center for Conservation Research.

Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Kerr, University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation, University of Ottawa, and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

On the origins of environmental bullshit



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Children play in the DDT fog left by the ‘fog truck’ in a New Jersey neighbourhood.
George Silk/LIFE 1948

David Schlosberg, University of Sydney

This article is part of an ongoing series from the Post-Truth Initiative, a Strategic Research Excellence Initiative at the University of Sydney. The series examines today’s post-truth problem in public discourse: the thriving economy of lies, bullshit and propaganda that threatens rational discourse and policy.

The project brings together scholars of media and communications, government and international relations, physics, philosophy, linguistics, and medicine, and is affiliated with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), the Sydney Environment Institute and the Sydney Democracy Network.


I grew up in the Long Island suburbs of New York and have vivid memories of running behind the “fog trucks”. These trucks went through the neighbourhoods spraying DDT for mosquito control until it was banned in 1972.

I didn’t know it until much later, but that experience, and exposure, was extended due to the pesticide industry’s lies and tactics – what is now labelled “post-truth”.

Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. It was a beautifully written, if distressing, bit of what we today call “research translation”. The “silent spring” was the impact of DDT as songbird species were killed off.

Carson tried to expose the chemical industry’s disinformation. For doing so, she was roundly and untruthfully attacked as a communist and an opponent of progress. Silent Spring was one of the most popular and vetted overviews of environmental science of all time. Yet lies and bullshit prevented a decent policy response for a decade.

Back in the day DDT was used with nearly no restrictions. From American Experience/PBS.

And the lies won’t go away. In 2007, one of the think-tanks responsible for climate science misinformation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, began reiterating one of the main refuted claims about Carson. She was said to be responsible for millions of deaths due to the ban on DDT to control mosquitoes that spread malaria.

The reality is that while DDT was banned for agriculture in the US – and spraying on kids in suburban neighbourhoods – it was never banned for anti-malarial use. Even now. But the political right and the dirtiest chemical industry players in all of industrial capitalism have long painted environmentalists as killers – of people, progress and jobs.

It’s a carefully manufactured campaign of lies and disinformation. As a result, many people believe Carson is a flat-out mass murderer – not a hero who beautifully blended care for human health and nonhuman nature in one of the most important and challenging books of the 20th century.

Lies and smears have a long history

This anti-environmentalist tactic of countering critiques of industrial impacts on the planet with lies, obfuscation and defamation has a long history. It goes back at least to establishment attacks on the US municipal housekeeping movement in the progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The urban environmental movement probably began in the 1880s with the Ladies Health Protective Association in New York, the City Beautiful movement, Waring’s White Wings city cleaners, and more.

This 1913 municipal housekeeping poster shows many home duties related to government, but the movement’s members were smeared as unworthy women.
Internet Archive Book Images/flickr

Municipal housekeeping in particular was primarily a women’s movement to clean up cities. This eventually led to the development of formal offices of public health and public planning in local governments.

The opposition – from meatpackers to fertiliser makers to the waste industry – labelled these women bad housekeepers. They argued that the only reason women wanted to “mother” and keep house in the community was because they were so bad at such things at home – that municipal housekeeping was only a movement against domestic housekeeping.

In other words, they were not real women and were unconcerned with anyone but themselves.

Not surprisingly, the polluting industries were at the heart of such bullshit attacks. And in both this example from the early 20th century and the Carson example from the 1960s, industry used a very gendered attack as part of the post-truth campaign.

The theme of industrial lies covering environmental damage continued in the 1980s in the Pacific Northwest timber wars. Once again, environmentalists were scapegoated for the loss of timber jobs.

Efforts to protect the spotted owl were blamed for the loss of jobs due to timber industry automation.
USFS/flickr, CC BY

These job losses were primarily due to automation. But the controversy over the endangered spotted owl allowed the timber industry to create another narrative – that environmentalists cared about birds more than jobs, that they wouldn’t be happy until the economy was devastated, and that all of the changes that harmed timber workers were due to environmental regulation – not the industry itself.

The attack on science ramped up then as well. When scientists declared that each pair of owls needed a certain exclusive range, and so protecting them from extinction would entail preserving whole forests, the industry-captured Forest Service simply shrank the recommendation.

The very real environmental science was dismissed. Subsequent policy was based in fantasy, wishful thinking and the lies of the industry. The timber wars were another example of science on the one hand and industry lies – supported by government – on the other.

The history of climate change denialism since the 1980s has really been the culmination of the attack on environmental science.

It has been based on the production of lies developed by the fossil fuel industry through industry-funded conservative think-tanks, laundered through conservative foundations, spun and repeated by right-wing media outlets, and adopted as ideology by the Republican Party. Its representatives are supported by even more industry and conservative funding of elections, or face opposition from others if they don’t comply.

This is, as Riley Dunlap and Aaron McCright have written, a well-funded, highly complex and relatively co-ordinated denial machine. It includes “contrarian scientists, fossil fuel corporations, conservative think tanks, and various front groups”, along with “amateur climate bloggers … public relations firms, astroturf groups, conservative media and pundits, and conservative politicians”.

The goal is simple and clear: no regulation on industry, and what environmental sociologist Robert Brulle calls the “institutionalisation of delay” on climate policy. The tools are simple as well: lies, obfuscation, defamation and the creation of an image of scientific uncertainty.

What is the current state of affairs after 30 years of this climate denial machine?

In the US, at least 180 congressional members and senators are declared climate deniers. They’ve received more than US$82 million in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry and its partners.

This is a long, complicated and well-trod story told, among others, by Naomi Oreskes in Merchants of Doubt, and by Michael Mann in The Madhouse Effect. It has been going on a long time.

The history is important, as a problematic front-page story in The New York Times, How GOP Leaders Came to View Climate Change as Fake Science, illustrates. The report includes an explanatory sentence that is jaw-dropping for its misunderstanding and reshaping of the issue:

The Republican Party’s fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favouring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over co-operation and conciliation.

So it was “big political money” – not the industry, not the Koch brothers’ campaign, not an all-out effort to shift public opinion, just “political money”. Democratic hubris becomes a central reason for Republicans believing in fake science. The argument is that this was a reaction to President Barack Obama’s regulatory approach in his second term, as if denialism didn’t exist before 2012.

And then there’s the idea that this is a bipartisan problem – of extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric – rather than one the anti-environmental right created.

Brulle took to Twitter to criticise the story – primarily the short timeframe. Clearly, climate obfuscation doesn’t start in 2008, when The New York Times story starts. The climate change denial machine has been up and running since at least 1988, 20 years longer than the story suggests.

Brulle was also livid that a story on the social aspects of climate discourse did not cite a single expert. This was despite there being hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and books on the denial machine.

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So even the major media refuse to clearly expose the undermining of real environmental science, and the creation of lies and bribes to distort public policymaking. But this work is out there. It’s really the thorough work done on the climate denial machine that lays out the methodology of the development of environmental distortions, lies and post-truth discourse.

And, again, this is the core example of the evolution of environmental bullshit: a long history of industry creation of lies; conservative funding of think-tanks, front groups and the echo chamber; the development of an ideological imperative of denialism; and then the necessity of completely groundless bullshit to shore up the lies. It’s all there.

This methodology has clearly been used here in Australia. Graham Redfearn, writing for the desmog blog and The Guardian, has done amazing and thorough work on the denial machines in the US and Australia – and their links. In Australia, a clear link exists between climate denialism and the coal industry.

Many on the right, including the current and past prime ministers, parrot the lies and PR language of the industry – energy poverty, coal is cheap, clean coal is possible, 10,000 jobs, etc. It’s a tale as old as tobacco, lead, timber wars and DDT. It’s as old as industries that know their products do public harm, but lie to keep them in use.

The point here is simply to acknowledge what many have argued about the whole idea of “post-truth” – it’s not anything new, but just more of the same.

Environmentalists have long seen the propagation of lies, piles of bullshit, the dismissal of science, and the creation of mythologies as a consistent core of corporate misbehaviour – and, unfortunately, conservative ideology.


You can read other pieces in the post-truth series here.

The ConversationThe Democracy Futures series is a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

David Schlosberg, Professor of Environmental Politics and Co-Director Sydney Environment Institute, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Low-energy homes don’t just save money, they improve lives


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Eco-houses at Scotland’s Housing Expo, Inverness. What is it like to live in a house like this?
via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Stephen Berry, University of South Australia; David Michael Whaley, University of South Australia, and Trivess Moore, RMIT University

Household energy use is a significant contributor to global carbon emissions. International policy is firmly moving towards technology-rich, low- and near-zero-energy homes. That is, buildings designed to reduce the need for additional heating, cooling and lighting. They use efficient or renewable energy technology to reduce the remaining energy use.

But what about the experiences of people who live in homes of this standard? Are these homes comfortable, easy to operate, and affordable? Do people feel confident using so-called smart energy technology designed for low energy use? What support systems do we need to help people live in low-energy, low-carbon houses?

We worked with other Australian and UK researchers to understand what it’s like to live in purpose-built low-energy housing. As part of this project, researchers from Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Salford in the UK visited South Australia to collect data from Lochiel Park Green Village, one of the world’s most valuable living laboratories of near-zero energy homes.

Lochiel Park’s 103 homes were built in the mid-2000s to achieve a minimum of 7.5 energy efficiency stars. They’re purpose-built to be a comfortable temperature year-round, and are packed with a solar photovoltaic system, solar hot water, a live feedback display to show households their energy use, plus a range of water- and energy-efficient appliances and equipment. Combined, these systems reduce both annual and peak energy demand, and supply much of that energy at a net zero-carbon impact.

To reciprocate, we spent several weeks investigating similar examples of niche low-energy housing developments in the Midlands and the North of England. We listened to the stories of people living in low energy homes, who experience the difference on a daily basis, and from season to season. They help us look beyond the dollars saved or percentage of emissions reduced; for them the impact of low-energy homes is personal.

This research provides new insights into the relationship between people, energy technologies and low-carbon buildings. For example, one elderly householder told us that moving into a dry and warm low-energy home allowed their grandchildren to come and stay, completely changing their life, and the life of their family.

Low-energy homes create a wide range of physical and mental changes. Several households spoke about health improvements from higher indoor air quality. Even the idea of living in a healthier and more environmentally sustainable home can prompt lifestyle changes – one woman in her mid-50s told us she gave up smoking after moving into her low-energy house because she felt her behaviour should match the building’s environmental design. She also shortened the length of her showers, reduced her food wastage, and lowered her transport use by visiting the supermarket less often.

Purpose-built low-energy homes also give economic empowerment to low-income households. One household told us that savings on energy bills let them afford annual family holidays, even overseas. This economic benefit matches our findings in other Australian examples.

As researchers, we might dismiss this as a macro-economic rebound effect, voiding many of the energy and environmental benefits. But to that household the result was a closer and stronger family unit, able to make the types of choices available to others in their community. The benefits in mental and physical wellbeing are real, and more important to that family than net carbon emission reductions.

Although international policy is firmly moving towards technology-rich, low-energy homes, our research shows that not all technology is user-friendly or easy to understand. For example, some households were frustrated by not knowing if their solar hot water system was efficiently using free solar energy, or just relying on gas or electric boosting. Design improvements with better user feedback will be critically important if we are to meet people’s real needs.

The ConversationThis research highlights the importance, in the transition to low-energy and low-carbon homes, of not forgetting the people themselves. Improving real quality of life should be the central focus of carbon-reducing housing policies.

Stephen Berry, Research fellow, University of South Australia; David Michael Whaley, Research Fellow in Sustainable Energy and Electrical Engineering, University of South Australia, and Trivess Moore, Research Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.