About five or six years ago I went through a period of deep depression, driven by this impotence to make any kind of difference for the better – seeing the things that I valued going down the toilet no matter what we did, no matter what we said. Most ecologists in my field who have anything to do with conservation accept things are really bad. Yet still commercialism wins every time. That really hit me hard.
These are such massive issues that human societies are grappling with. And I’ve largely failed to make much of a difference because it’s all about politics and socio-economics. I came to the point where I realised I had to shift focus from prevention to damage control – that if I could make the world slightly less shittier than it would otherwise be for my daughter, then I could justify my efforts.
Like most parents, when a child comes along, you start to think beyond your own longevity. And she put that final nail in the coffin of a “prevention” mentality; so I switched from trying to avert disaster to damage control. I know I’m not going to change the world, but if there’s anything I can do to minimise the damage, then I can justify getting out of bed in the morning.
You can only use logic to a certain extent in politics, because ideologies generally trump logic. But you can sometimes get the message through if you present future scenarios in the simplest form – if you present, say, X versus Y, the modelling suggests that you’re going to save this much money or prevent this many deaths by doing X versus going down this other path Y. It becomes a scenario comparison.
One of my favourite quotes is by George Box, the renowned biostatistician who died in 2013: he said “all models are wrong, but some are useful”. And that’s very true because all models are a simplification of the real world. Future projections require stochastic programming skills – we use supercomputers, we code, we use very complex systems to simplify the real world. But if you pose the right questions, and you give scenario comparisons, we can talk about relative trends. The models don’t have to say that we predict “x” is going to happen. But we can say that if we do this versus that, then this is a relatively better option than that one.
My research now focuses on weaving together a large set of solutions-based approaches. I work with experts from many different fields, mixing all sorts of large-scale stuff that’s very practical – the lowest hanging fruit in everything from economics to corporate law, to psychology, to food production, to water management.
It’s very large scale, and yes, most implementation strategies for any sort of interventions for the better are going to be happening at smaller scales, because there’s no world government, and so we can’t make decisions at that global scale. But it’s providing guidelines to follow, if we have the political will to do so.
To minimise a lot of economic arguments, you need to emphasise how one option is going to be cheaper in the long run than another – which generally means it’s going to save a lot of lives. For that reason, I do some human-health research too – for example, I moved into looking at the impacts of environmental degradation on child health. A lot of people don’t understand the intrinsic value of biodiversity, but if you demonstrate that their kids will die faster if this is the path we continue on, then maybe more people will listen to the message.
We were some of the first researchers who did anything linking large-scale environmental degradation to child mortality under the age of five in Africa. Yes, there are factors like the availability of sanitation and clean water and household density and air pollution – all those things are influences. But when you factor those out, and control for everything else, you find the more environmentally degraded countries in Africa have higher child mortality rates. It’s been my job to provide that kind of evidence.
Here in South Australia, I’ve had many chats with politicians about how we can fix a lot of the diverse legislation in this state. We still don’t actually have any dedicated biodiversity legislation here – our laws against land clearing and investment in the environment are spread over many different Acts with diverse objectives. I’ve written a paper specific to South Australia about all the things we can fix, and I made sure that it was presented in State Parliament. But as I said, the evidence only goes so far: you need the leaders to have some political will. So, you just keep tapping away, and hopefully someone will listen. But it’s just been such a relentless and mostly disappointing pathway.
There are occasions where the work does bear fruit. I had one of my papers cited in the Senate by Sarah Hansen-Young a couple years ago; she put forward a motion about climate change and cited one of my papers. Certain politicians will try to convince their colleagues to vote for legislation that actually is better.
But I’m not a lobbyist. I don’t play politics very well. I’m not a schmoozer in Canberra. That’s not my forte. But if I can get my information to the right people, hopefully they will have the powers of persuasion to use my evidence to make some positive changes to our broken system.