Biodiversity in an Age of Responsibility

The Foresters’ Forum – Further notes on what it is to be a forester …. rather than a tree agronomist.

2020 hasn’t just been about Covid-19.  The stories online that should most concern us as foresters are the significance of biodiversity decline, the European response to the urgency, and the horror that is the Amazon situation.  Short-term expedience meets the degradation of a functioning whole. 

Welcome to yet another existential threat which we won’t find where we’re not looking.

Many will say “so what?” because they do not understand even where their own interests lie.  Or because they won’t find it in this quarter’s income-expenditure statement.

But we’ve lived in an Age of Expediency for almost 40 years. We’ve reduced our concerns to the narrow and the short-term, to the quantifiable, to the agronomic and the financial. We’ve either purposefully or through the pressures of the workplace machine, reduced ourselves to obedient and focused cogs in the hierarchy of the unthinking behemoth of, more often than not, corporate commerce.

A narrowing of scope and breadth blinds the senses. And so we keep bumping into the black swans of system effects (which aren’t even black swans because they are easy to see if people lift their head from the screen). 

Should we wish a return to some sort of Age of Responsibility, then it would require some restoration of the old historic forester system breadth and long-term view, far beyond discounted finance and mere agronomy. 

Some base of concern and moral responsibility is also a damn sight better in its capacity to foresee risk, to adapt, and to visualise solutions that go beyond some narrow obsession with another whirl of The Technology Treadmill.

Breadth and moral responsibility are far wiser than any narrow spreadsheet. It’s why – by contrast – narrow corporates keep doing foolish things.

Areas of forest cleared for planting palm oil plantations in Aceh province in Indonesia last summer. Credit…Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA, via Shutterstock

So, a bit of thought ….. why does biodiversity matter? Unfortunately, biodiversity is saddled with a “nice to have” image problem.  It has too many syllables for a start.  Too technical.  It smacks of thing that are ‘nice’, but …  A few nice birds in the home garden, some trees, a stream. 

We don’t think of ‘biodiversity’ as the planet’s ‘life-support system’, and yet it is just that.  We breath it, eat of it, play in it, and it cleans up after us.  Remove the rivets one by one to serve the little gods Expedience and Efficiency (don’t get me started – bulldozers are ‘more efficient’ than shovels to ditch a stream; so tell me how that is ‘better’?), and you end up creating fragility. 

You’ll break more easily. Doubly bad, you will be less likely to see any threat coming.

And when surprise comes – which it will (even thought that also is not in the spreadsheet) – the loss of one rivet inevitably cascades, like a wildfire leaping. 

And biodiversity isn’t just a few birds.  It’s the landscape systems connected from mountain, hills, soils, streams, coastlines, and continental shelves to the deep ocean trenches.   It connects from native forest to farm field to city street, and through the pulse of seasons, good years and bad.  Soils and their biology who hold and filter the rain, keeping the streams flowing and filled with life, the pulsing flow of energy that feeds and shelters throughout the year, that reproduces and disperses.  The springs and streams where caddis, koura and cockabullies roam, and kids try to catch them. 

We as humans are a part of it, integral to it.  It isn’t some new age spiritualism to say ‘the land is us and we are the land’.  It’s a biophysical reality of health and wellbeing.   

We’ve diminished ‘biodiversity’ by thinking of it as ‘over there, beyond the fence’ instead of around us all, across our landscapes, within ourselves, integral.   We’ve jumped at a Modern Cartesian dualism, beloved of High Modern Treasury and preservationists, to put cultureless ‘nature’ over one side of the fence, and cultureless and nature-less commerce over the other side.  An industrial Tolkein Mordor and over the fence a Wilderness (sans Elves of course).

We’ve also diminished it by thinking of biodiversity not within a wider concept of space and time, but as merely some patch of bush, a thing, a noun, a structure, perhaps a bird, and where only ‘indigenous’ species may apply. 

Biodiversity is far more about connected flow and flux than ‘thing’.  It is verb and function more than native patch or bird.  A better biodiversity means accepting integrated landscape function as the important lens through which we see.  And that lens means introduced species, the so-called “working lands” and human spaces and systems as part of the whole, both as functional providers on the one hand and pest disrupters to those functions on the other.  

Those presumed to be human spaces are also a part of this landscape system.  Our cities are critical to autumn and winter feed for birds; nectar, insects and fruits.  And the health of our farmscapes, forests, woodlands, wetlands and healthy soil ecology (not a hydroponic medium for a crop) and homestead plantings are critical to soil and stream functions, and provide the habitat from invertebrate to ‘charismatic megafauna’ (aka tui, kereru and such).

A healthy biodiverse New Zealand requires us to see through this wider landscape scope, not just a few native reserves– which might well be oases within a landscape desert.  Reserves areas are important, but the imperative is to create a healthy whole, a connected functional landscape of healthy cities, healthy farmscapes, healthy landscapes, and native reserves. 

A healthy biodiverse New Zealand also requires us to realise our connections, and accepting that we are – hopefully and imperatively – shifting from a dull-of-thought Age of Expedience to a wiser Age of Responsibility.   

Back to integrative and moral thinking, where opportunities lie in plain sight, and the vulnerability to threats fall away.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley grew up in landscapes. His playgrounds were hills, streams, fields and woods. He studied forest ecology because of the experience he had sitting within a complex forest. You can see, hear, feel, smell and even taste a forest. But those feelings were not taught in his science education. Something was missing. A rainbow was being unwoven. Quanta was all.

The quiet dissatisfaction grew while working to integrate the woodlands into what were essentially colonial factory landscapes, and later in policy and research. The marginalising of our potential, and our connection to place, was all too evident. He has called for a ‘Reimagining’ ever since.
 From a machine able to be reduced to disconnected bits, to a complex system that is inherently indivisible.

His subsequent work was on the philosophy – old and new – required to reimagine our landscapes, to see and be something different as members of place and community.
Chris has worked as an editor, a writer, and is an affiliated researcher for Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

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