Strange bedfellows? Techno-fixes and conservation

I have a new paper out in the peer-reviewed journal Biological Conservation that will be of interest to BNC readers.

It is called “Strange bedfellows? Techno-fixes to solve the big conservation issues in southern Asia“, by Barry W. Brook & Corey J.A. Bradshaw. Here are some details:

Abstract

The conservation challenges facing mega-biodiverse South and Southeast Asia in the 21st century are enormous. For millennia, much of the habitat of these regions was only lightly modified by human endeavour, yet now it is experiencing rampant deforestation, logging, biofuel cropping, invasive species expansion, and the synergies of climate change, drought, fire and sea-level rise. Although small-scale conservation management might assist some species and habitats, the broader sweep of problems requires big thinking and some radical solutions. Given the long expected lead times between progressive economic development and stabilization of human population size and consumption rates, we argue that ‘technological fixes’ cannot be ignored if we are to address social and fiscal drivers of environmental degradation and associated species extinctions in rapidly developing regions like southern Asia.

The pursuit of cheap and abundant ‘clean’ energy from an economically rational mix of nuclear power, geothermal, solar, wind, and hydrogen-derivative ‘synfuels’, is fundamental to this goal. This will permit pathways of high-tech economic development that include intensified (high energy-input) agriculture over small land areas, full recycling of material goods, a transition from fossil-fuel use for transport and electricity generation, a rejection of tropical biofuels that require vast areas of arable land for production, and a viable alternative to the damming of major waterways like the Mekong, Murum and northern tributaries of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers for hydroelectricity. Rational approaches that work at large scales must be used to deal with the ultimate, rather than just proximate, drivers of biodiversity loss in the rapidly developing regions of southern Asia.

Highlights

► Conservation challenges in southern Asia in the 21st century are enormous. ► Historical threats like habitat loss are being compounded by affluence growth. ► A BAU fossil-fuel-intensive economic route will lead to further major damages. ► Energy innovation a major route to avoiding depletion of natural resources. ► Must ‘think big’ and embrace techno-fixes in addition to invoking societal change.

Keywords: Anthropocene; Biofuels; Consumption rates; Energy supply; Extinction; Human population size; Hydroelectricity; Nuclear energy; Social change; Southeast Asia; Technological fix; Wealth

Article Outline

  • 1. The big picture for southern Asia
  • 2. Science and social change are important, but not enough
  • 3. Technology as a driver of environmental degradation
  • 4. Social change or techno-fixes? The crucial matter of time and human nature
  • 5. Sustainable alternatives to large-scale problems
  • 6. Conclusion

Our article explains that our inability to mitigate extinctions (or climate change) can be tied to a more general limitation of sustainability science, because it tends to focus on fine-scale and piecemeal solutions that do not tackle the ultimate, large-scale drivers of ecosystem degradation. The major global and regional problems is certainly tied to the size (and dispersion) of the human population, and the way it consumes energy. The underpinning of economic growth and the resultant increase in prosperity and standard of living is fundamentally linked to the availability of abundant, cheap energy.

Although there seems no conceivable way society will voluntarily regress its energy use, this is typically offered as the only ‘solution’ to reduce human pressures on natural environments. Yet it is becoming ever clearer that ‘techno fixes’ (sensu Weinberg et al.) must be part of the solution. We argue that by solving the energy problem (replacing fossil fuels with low-impact alternatives), virtually any other problem identified from unsustainable human activity can also be rectified; for example, food production, water, waste and material recycling, transport and trade, and sustainable wealth generation. We need to consider all options, especially nuclear energy. Rational approaches must be used to deal with the ultimate drivers of biodiversity loss.

Here is our conclusion, from the paper:

We know what the macro-scale problems in conservation are, and we know that species are going extinct at an alarming rate (Pimm and Raven, 2000; Ehrlich and Pringle, 2008; Bradshaw et al., 2009). Additional biological information, though obviously useful, will only serve to refine our estimates of extinction rate if we fail to act regionally and globally to prevent the worst ravages of ecosystem collapse. What we need now are the pragmatic, real-world fixes – implemented in time, and at sufficient scale, to make a meaningful difference.

Corey and I both feel that it’s time the professional conservation biology and ecology communities became more forthright about advocating for, and researching, these crucial issues.

The techno-fix article is available online now, and will appear in print in an upcoming special issue that is dedicated to the memory of my long-time friend and scientific collaborator Prof. Navjot Sodhi, who sadly died suddenly from lymphoma in June this year, aged only 49. Navjot and I had written two books and 38 scientific papers together since first meeting in 2001. Corey and I, with two other colleagues, also wrote an obituary for him that appeared in Conservation Biology recently: Homage to an Avant-Garde Conservation Leader, Navjot Sodhi.

If you would like a PDF of this paper on the role of techno-fixes in conservation biology (or the obituary), please email me and I’ll send it along to you.

Edit: Corey Bradshaw also has a post about the paper on Conservation Bytes, Mucking around the edges.

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9 Comments

  1. They are only strange bedfellows for people who have taken the usual output of the conventional green/anti-technology propaganda machine and swallowed it whole. To eschew advanced technology is to increase our environmental footprint. With the correct suite of advanced technologies we can live in style (all of us) and reduce our environmental footprint to manageable levels.

  2. One of the most interesting journal articles I have read in a long while. I certainly haven’t ever read anything quite like it in the conservation biology literature. Congratulations and well done to you and Professor Bradshaw.

    I hope this does arouse some interest in the ecology/conservation biology communites. It will be very interesting to read any responses to it – whether through Biological Conservation or through other media.

    Ehrlich has been arguing for years that ecologists (and scientists in general) need to be more forthright about advocating for solutions to the world’s many environmental problems. While not exactly what most people would associate with Ehrlich’s ideas about environmental advocacy, this is a really valuable contribution.

    Again, well done.

  3. Outside of the biggest cities of Southeast Asia are many, perhaps hundreds of small grids. What is currently only a few megawatts of demand in a town of several hundred thousand people and its environs, is is bound to grow into several hundred megawatts as the citizens become prosperous enough to buy appliances.

    These are the locations that deserve a mass-produced roll-out of small reactors. In the event of a mass production, demands on fuel supply, waste processing and proliferation, require a closed fuel cycle and the involvement of the already-nuclear nations. Such is the vision of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership , which is currently dormant, but hopefully will evolve into something which will serve the development needs of Southeast Asia. No doubt we will hear more of it on this website when it happens.

  4. Pingback: Mucking around the edges « ConservationBytes.com

  5. One has to BUY the paper? Errrrrrr….!

    We’ve talked about the mini-grids that exist outside of the big cities in places like Asia. The same is true with Africa, only more so. Often it’s only the capital city that is at all electrified.

    We’ve written about the advantage of LFTR and other SMRs to build, strengthen and make reliable these small grids. More often that not these ‘grids’ serving a few hundred households to a few thousand are run off of diesel-electric generators, hand-me-downs from the nearest rail road yard.

    Plopping, say, a small 50MW load-changing reactor into one of these smaller grids is an excellent path to the development of the productive forces in any country, province or small town. They can be added to, doubling or incrementally increasing in size as needed or as financially sound such an investment is made.

    I’m sort of known as a contrarian over at energfromthorium.com because I advocate the development of BIG LFTRs to base load coal-to-nuclear substitution. But in underdeveloped countries the SMR of any variety takes on a whole new ‘market’, a whole new Je Nous Se Qua, so to speak, for development.

    We can tie SMRs together to form the basis of a national grid, then, add bigger reactors as wealth creation increases and load along with it.

    There is truly a bright future for this kind of atomic power in under developed and developing countries in Asia.

  6. Kudos fellas. We really need this type of thinking. The alternative thinking to conservation in developing regions especially is like trying to put out a bonfire with a water pistol IMHO; a gain here or there but the rest just keeps on burning.

  7. Pingback: Summary of China’s fast reactor programme « BraveNewClimate

  8. Pingback: Can Technology Save the Environment? « Linus Blomqvist's blog

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