Advice for a young environmentalist

What a brilliant time to be jumping into the human-environment cooking pot which has been heating up year-on-year, and is now simmering just below boiling point.

The overarching concern, I would say, is the impoverishment in biodiversity that we humans are bringing about – at first locally and now globally. The immediate causes of decline have not changed through the years:

  • habitat loss and fragmentation;
  • species loss;
  • ecosystem degradation.

Ecosystem degradation includes a variety of ecological problems such as: simplification of food webs; loss of insect–flower pollination systems and seed dispersal agents (such as birds, rodents and ungulates); decline in animal migrations; decline in various kinds of keystone species; wetland pollution; atmospheric pollution; disturbance and destruction of sensitive habitats such as the ocean bed, coastal mangrove forest and fringing coral reef; and a host of other factors.

From the human point of view these declines have various consequences:

  • loss of ecosystem goods
  • loss of ecosystem services
  • loss of jobs
  • weakened livelihoods and reduction in wellbeing, especially for the poor
  • cultural, spiritual and aesthetic impoverishment
  • higher prices for basic commodities
  • instability in society and increased conflict
  • climate change.

By the way, those ecosystem goods comprise all of the natural resources like wild fish, timber, soil, fresh water, game animals, herbs and medicinal plants, and so on. Whilst ecosystem services are the benefits we derive indirectly from biodiversity, such as erosion control, water purification, water flow regulation, O2 production, CO2 absorption, and such like.

As I see it, the four great drivers bringing about biodiversity decline are:

  • Human population growth;
  • The western economic system that aims for year-on-year economic growth (which has been widely adopted throughout the world);
  • The growing rate of exploitation of major natural resources (many now at unsustainable levels); and
  • Climate change with its impacts on ocean currents and terrestrial ecosystems (still hard to predict how this will emerge and how it will interact with the other problems).

To give just one example of overexploitation of natural resources, much of China’s agriculture is based on underground water supplies which are being extracted at unsustainable rates. Consequently Chinese food production is predicted to decline by 37% in the second part of this century placing an enormous strain on the productive capacity of the rest of the world.

Some of the most important underlying issues for all of us to struggle with are:

  • Conflict between different human values – especially between the economic values relating to intensive farming (and other kinds of intensive production of land, water and natural resources) and the environmental values relating to ecological services, existence of wildlife, natural habitats, aesthetics and recreation. One aspect of the debate thrown up by these conflicts concerns our increasing expertise in genetically modifying organisms using genetic engineering techniques.
  • Inequitable distribution of benefits (derived ultimately from natural resources) has created an enormous gap between the richest and poorest in society – which of course ferments conflict.
  • Loss of cultural diversity which is rooted in the use of local resources by local peoples.

How do we reduce conflict, improve conditions of the poor, protect other cultures and save biodiversity? These are deep and challenging questions!

On a more practical and personal level, it is worth keeping a weather eye on where the funding is going. It’s a bit of a lottery trying to guess the future, but some of the hot topics emerging, or likely to emerge in the near future, are:

  • climate change and the carbon market;
  • legal reforms in the environmental sector and international environmental treaties;
  • building networks of protection across large landscapes and seascapes (corridors, islands, dispersal routes, habitat restoration, and so forth);
  • Costing and budgeting ecosystem services (a part of ‘green economics’);
  • Developing better mechanisms for monitoring the use of natural resources and enforcing sustainable exploitation;
  • Designing efficiency (low energy and low use of rare resources) into every aspect of modern life – buildings, transport, lifestyle, communications and commodities.

Similarly it is worth reflecting on the regions and types of ecosystem where we might expect major expansion of environmental work in the future. They surely will include China, Antarctica and the southern oceans, the Arctic and Northwest Passage, river catchments, coastal waters, and various arid regions in relation to water management. The plight of rainforests and coral reefs will continue to be critical because of the enormous variety of species.

Stepping back, I personally recognise two major challenges facing society. Firstly the transition of our current growth economy (which aims to maximize growth of nations, companies, jobs and personal wealth) to a green economy which aims to maintain balance between our demand for natural resources and their capacity to produce. Secondly the transition of the capitalist democratic model in western politics (which now dominates but is not universal) to a more eco-socialist democratic model (that provides better governance of the environment and poor in society).

It is worth pointing out that some others paint a more optimistic view of the human-Earth biosystem and believe that our ingenuity has always and will always find a way round resource limitation. A good example can be found in Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. There are elements of truth in their arguments which are worth exploring but the evidence that I’ve seen indicates that new ideas on growth and technology have had little impact on the global decline in biodiversity and natural resources. That is why I believe we need to change the economic system and political landscape so that balance between people and the Earth becomes our focal point. Ultimately it means changing the human relationship with nature, which is what I talk about in The Storm Leopard.

I’m not sure that all these word pictures are going to help that much, when I imagine what you really want is practical advice about what to do next? Well of course the real decisions are in your hands but I can perhaps offer a few tips. Keep aware of the big picture without being swamped by it. Develop a specific skill that will become both your joy, and bread and butter. It could be the skill to negotiate in resource conflicts, or to design wildlife corridors, or for practising environmental law or the law that protects the legal rights of indigenous peoples. Skills in accountancy and ecology will be needed for costing the services being supplied by forest ecosystems and mountain ecosystems and coastal ecosystems; other skills are needed for monitoring pollution in Arctic waters, or for designing energy efficiency into different kinds of building or enterprise. A completely different kind of skill is to become an expert on one species, perhaps a symbolic animal like the cougar, and then it can become a tool for much wider conservation applications.

Any skill that you find interesting and challenging, and which can be applied to the environment and humanity, is surely worth developing – teaching, wildlife surveys, leading campaigns, artistic interpretation, and so on. That means seeking out opportunities either when applying for work, or alongside your main job, or in your own time. It may help you to decide what to do next if you think about where the funding is going in future and the regions and ecosystems likely to experience major environmental challenges. But whatever you do, I hope you can follow your own environmental star. And may it shine brightly on you.

About Martyn Murray

Martyn is a writer, sailor and conservationist. His first book, The Storm Leopard, is a journey across Africa and into the heart of the environmental crisis. His second book, Origin of Species: Bite-Sized, contains the essence of Charles Darwin's greatest work - his theory of evolution by natural selection - in a text that is 15% the length of the original. His third book, Beyond the Hebrides, is the story of a sea voyage in an old leaking boat beginning in an Irish creek and ending on the remote islands of St Kilda in the west of Scotland. It is a tale of romance and adventure which arises from one man's exploration of practical ways to keep personal freedom alive in today’s demanding society. Visit Martyn's website at www.martynmurray.com. Martyn was born and brought up in Ayrshire, Scotland and now lives in North Berwick. He went to school in Perthshire, and studied at the Universities of Edinburgh, Zimbabwe, Malaya and Cambridge for degrees in Zoology with field research into: shelduck along the Scottish coast; impala in the Zambezi Valley; wild figs and figwasps in the Malaysian forests; and wildebeest migration in the Serengeti. This work was underpinned by theoretical investigations into competition, conflict and social behaviour. Martyn is a consultant in biodiversity and natural resources management.
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3 Responses to Advice for a young environmentalist

  1. Any other suggestions? Any bets on the hot environmental topics of the future? Any advice for someone concerned about the environment and humanity, and thinking about their career? Big or small, mad or sane…

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Advice for a young environmentalist | The Wild Nature Blog -- Topsy.com

  3. Pingback: Advice for a Young Conservationist | The Wild Nature Blog

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