Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

What Do Greenies Want?

By Hugh Possingham

The conservation movement is often too busy stopping others from getting what they want, and doesn’t spend enough time trying to make its own progress. Maybe it’s time to create a clear set of objectives with plans on how to deliver those objectives.

Earlier this year I attended and spoke at the Queensland Growth Management Summit, an initiative of Queensland’s Premier, Anna Bligh. The summit was a bold move to start the dialogue on the why, how much and where of population growth in Queensland. There were many impressive presentations from people with diverse views and backgrounds.

Undoubtedly the most impressive speaker was Bernard Salt – one of Australia’s best-known demographers. During the dinner debate he spoke very passionately about the merits of growth. He also asked one very fundamental question, a question that had clearly preyed on his mind because he asked it twice with emphasis: “What does the environmental movement want?”

My feeling was that he was sick and tired of the conservation movement saying “no” to things that other members of society wanted: you can’t have that dam/road/port facility because there is a little brown frog there; we can’t have any more people because we consume too much water/land; stop expanding forestry and agriculture and mining because it destroys native habitat. And I agree with his sentiment, in part. I think the conservation movement is often too busy stopping others from getting what they want, and doesn’t spend enough time trying to make its own progress.

In general it’s true that prevention is better than a cure (and definitely cheaper), and I along with my colleagues have worked hard to stop many of the biggest threats, like broad-scale land clearing. However, maybe it is time to go onto the front foot. Maybe it’s time to create a clear set of objectives with plans on how to deliver those objectives.

In the mid-90s I met with South Australia’s ministers for environment and agriculture to discuss just such a proposal. (At the time I was representing the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia, and with me was Peter Day, the executive officer of the South Australian Farmers’ Federation – which represented a fairly important collaboration between farmers and conservationists.)

Peter and I proposed “Biodiversity Development Plans”. These would be costed plans to achieve a net improvement in regional biodiversity. It would be a plan about aggressive and proactive actions – a forward thinking plan to sit beside and compete with the plans of other industries.

The two very capable ministers we presented to were very enthusiastic, but what happened? Well, the plans became biodiversity inventories – lists of assets (species and habitats) and their threats. But here’s the kick: like so many so-called biodiversity plans, these inventories did not include costed actions. I say “so-called” because without costed actions I don’t think you can claim that a process is a plan. A plan, after all, is something you intend to do, and that means it must have dates and costs.

Some parts of the green movement are getting on and taking action – Bush Heritage Australia, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, Pew Charitable Trusts and Trust for Nature are all aggressively pursuing options. Now we need state governments to invest in proactive biodiversity conservation, and we need natural resource management and catchment management authority boards with the funds and plans to secure and then restore biodiversity.

But back to the population debate at the Queensland Growth Management Summit. The second time Bernard Salt asked “What do greenies want?” (or words to that effect) I was goaded into yelling a response. “No species loss,” I cried. I really meant “No background rates of species loss” but the subtlety may have been lost on the 200 dinner guests sloshing back their wine.

If “a growing GDP” is the bottom line for Australia’s economy, then surely “no background rates of species loss” is our conservation bottom line. The economists have succeeded and the conservationists have failed. Indeed, even when we set a clear national target for a reduction in the rate of species loss (and this would be the goal we promised to achieve when signing on to the Convention on Biological Diversity 2010), we have invested so little in achieving the goal that we can’t even measure the progress of our failure.

The take-home message is that we need to set quantifiable biodiversity targets, invest in actions that cost-effectively maximise the chance of achieving those targets, and measure progress towards meeting the targets. It ain’t rocket science.

Professor Hugh Possingham is Director of the Applied Environmental Decision Analysis centre at the University of Queensland.