[Taxacom] New Year thoughts

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Fri Dec 31 19:28:44 CST 2010

Every New Year the Australian federal government makes available previously archived 'secret' documents from 30 years earlier. This year's release includes a statement to federal Cabinet from the then-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. He urged formal Australian support for the World Conservation Strategy proposed by the UN, WWF and the IUCNNR:

'Development requires modification and transformation of the environment … The planet's capacity to support its people is being irreversibly reduced by the destruction and degradation of the biosphere and the need to understand the problem and take corrective action is becoming urgent.'

Fraser was talking at a time when the world's population was estimated to be 4.5 billion. Thirty years later it's 7 billion. That's an almost 80% increase in about one generation. The rate of capacity reduction hasn't tracked the population increase, which would be bad enough, but has instead kept in step with the demand on resources needed for modern lifestyles. This demand has increased enormously in the past 30 years, notably in China and India, which is why I don't say 'Western' lifestyles.

Another Australian, biologist Harry Recher, has pointed out that there are no unused natural resources. Every bit of land and water not being used by humans is used by other species. When we appropriate those resources, we reduce what's available to those species and increase their risk of extinction. Intensifying use also increases the risk: there are species on farms that can't survive in small towns, and species in small towns that can't survive in cities and industrial lands.

All these things were well understood 30 years ago, and the best the world's conservation strategies have managed to achieve in that time is to increase the area of natural reserves around the world. Anything more in the way of 'corrective action' is pretty hopeless, like demanding that your children have no kids or only 1, or that meat eaters around the world should change to a mainly vegetarian diet.

Those of us interested in discovering and documenting the world's biodiversity before it disappears also face a gloomy future. Remarkable new digital tools and rapid publishing may be making individual taxonomists more productive, but that increased productivity is being compensated by a steady decline in the worldwide total of discoverers-and-documenters. We are not growing enough taxonomists. Meanwhile, biodiversity salvage of disappearing habitats remains low on every funding body's priority list, so we are also not discovering and documenting where the disappearing is fastest.

What else can be done? I've previously pushed here (ad nauseam to some) on Taxacom for biodiversity salvage and for 'open taxonomy' online projects which anyone can join. I'm begining to think that a third worthwhile strategy is to remind potential discoverers-and-documenters just how amazing the natural world is, in detail. Too many students around the world (at primary, secondary and tertiary) are having their heads sucked into intellectual structures which generalise ecology, or evolutionary relationships. Too much boring big picture, too little surprising detail.

It alarms me that I can't find much of what used to be called 'natural history' in today's curricula. The 'gee whiz!' in today's biology is Craig Venter sticking a 'synthetic' genome into a prokaryote cell, not the revealing of one of the mind-bogglingly complex *natural* connections between (for example) a phytophagous insect, its plant host or its parasites and predators. Here in Tasmania I can still get 'OMG!' reactions from people of all ages by showing them on a bushwalk how our common terrestrial nemertean everts its proboscis, or that a certain bright-yellow strip of slimy material in their garden is actually a living, actively predacious terrestrial triclad. But neither of these common animals is in any biology course here. 'Worms' aren't science, it seems. I'll try to work on that...
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
School of Zoology, University of Tasmania
Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
Ph: (03) 64371195; 61 3 64371195
Webpage: http://www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/?articleID=570

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