Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A World of Difference?

By Hugh Possingham

Conservation science, management and policy confront the same problems around the world. Claiming that Australia is different is not a valid excuse for not getting on with the job.

Having recently returned from a whirlwind trip through Asia, I am prompted to ask: just how much difference is there in conservation issues around the world? Before I left I would have predicted that Asia, given cultural and language differences, would be far more different than North America or Europe. I was wrong.

The first obvious difference travelling from Australia to Asia is crossing Wallace’s Line. Suddenly the species change a lot: honeyeaters become sunbirds, marsupials become placentals, and eucalypts essentially disappear (except for the ones that have been planted).

Australian ecologists make a great deal about how different Australia is, fuelled by the turnover of species, but from a conservation management perspective I found many more similarities than differences. Sunbirds and honeyeaters are all pollinators, for example, so while the species may be completely different the ecological processes are the same.

And the problems faced by biodiversity are pretty similar too – habitat loss, invasive species, climate change, water management, resource exploitation and so on. The list can be found in any textbook and every management plan for biodiversity.

That said, given that much of conservation is about people, maybe it is the people that make things different as we move from country to country. And yet I find people disturbingly similar. They have a relatively fixed suite of motivations, and once one has overcome minor, usually immaterial differences, it is easy to see that the problems and solutions to conserving biodiversity are generic across the globe.

In Beijing, for example, I held discussions with Prof Lu Zhi about the conservation management of a biodiversity hotspot in the mountains of south-west China. This is a remarkable area where three of the world’s biggest rivers are born and large mammals like brown bears and snow leopards still roam. Issues here ranged from water management to working with local graziers – the same as Australia (except more mountainous).

In other parts of Asia we discussed incentive schemes, biodiversity banking, carbon/biodiversity trade-offs, making plantations biodiversity-friendly, creating simple and useful decision-support tools, migratory birds and managing fisheries – the same things that we discuss here. The laws vary marginally from country to country, but bureaucrats and scientists have the same interactions.

Why am I pointing this out? I have always been concerned about the parochialism of Australian ecology (indeed ecology around the world). Over the years the mantra has been that “Australia is different”. Obviously it is, but as a synthesiser and traveller I see many more similarities than differences.

To be politically incorrect, the claim of difference has often been an excuse for mediocrity and paying far too little attention to the international literature. It is all too easy to reinvent the local ecological wheel and not learn from experiences elsewhere in the world. Indeed, in some regions of Australia ecologists will claim that basic concepts and theories need to be retested because of regional differences – a more extreme form of parochialism.

I worry even more about insularity in Australian management agencies. Fuelled by ecologists telling them that everything is different here, and reinforced by cultural, economic, political and legal differences, it seems that almost every country in the world is hell-bent on reinventing conservation policy and management. This is exacerbated by how difficult it is for public servants to travel overseas and have negligible access to international literature on management, policy and science.

We have much to learn from sharing knowledge with overseas colleagues. Research institutions know this well. The next task is convincing government.

Professor Hugh Possingham is Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, which forms part of the Environmental Decisions Group.