Fostering biophilia - The Wombat Forest and the International Year of Biodiversity

By Alison Pouliot

Is the Wombat’s biodiversity teetering on the brink? (photo by Alison Pouliot)

The United Nations has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity (IYOB). This is a call to action to instigate international measures to curb biodiversity loss worldwide. Governmental reactions have been too few and too late hence new approaches, new ways of thinking and new actions must be inserted into the political process from below. Action begins locally, for example, here in the Wombat and one way to begin is through efforts to foster biophilia, the love of nature.

Australia is one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet and the Wombat Forest represents an area of significant biological diversity. Based on the high number of species and high degree of endemism, Australia is defined as megadiverse, being one of 17 countries that collectively contain more than 70% of the world’s species. Biologists estimate that more than a million species inhabit our continent. However, the bad news is that Australia also has an appallingly high rate of species extinction.

The global picture

The International Convention on Biological Diversity, which was agreed at the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 and ratified by 193 countries commits its signatories to protect biological diversity. Although pledging to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010, with the exception of some regional successes, the pledge has not be met with many scientists warning that species loss is accelerating, calling it the sixth great extinction. The sixth extinction is resulting not from natural events but specifically from anthropocentric causes. While certain levels of extinction are part of natural evolution, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a conservative estimate of species loss is between 1000 and 10,000 times higher than the expected natural extinction rate. Despite missing the 2010 goal, the UN Environment Programme scientists have urged governments worldwide to renew their commitment to decreasing biodiversity loss.

The UN Convention on Biodiversity Summit held in Japan in October will be a crucial opportunity to formulate a legally-binding treaty to decelerate species loss. The lack of commitment from many key countries to legally-binding agreements at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit makes one inevitably feel skeptical about the potential outcomes in Japan, hence the need for ongoing pressure from the bottom up, from each individual person, to galvanise governments into action.

The local picture - biodiversity awareness and the Wombat

Given that Australia is one of the two most affluent countries on the megadiversity list, one might expect that a well-educated, wealthy population would have greater means to tackle environmental issues, protect its biodiversity and set a global example. Unfortunately all levels of government have been far too slow to take action with many still failing to recognise the urgency of the issue and the significance of biodiversity loss.

The protection of the Wombat’s biodiversity, for example, does not appear to be on the agenda. A quick online search of the Wombat Forest will reveal 4WD activity maps, blogs from Dirtbike World, car rally calendars, the Sawlog Supply Project and the like. The first (and almost only) mention of biodiversity that I could find was on Wombat Forestcare’s website. The point is that the protection of the Wombat’s biodiversity is being grossly overlooked. Every other use of the Wombat Forest, most of which are largely counter to biodiversity protection, appear to take priority.

Hepburn Shire Council’s response to my several queries regarding IYOB initiatives was that it hadn’t thought “that far ahead”. If it doesn’t think “that far ahead” soon the Wombat Forest’s biodiversity may well be irreversibly compromised. Nic Stern’s keynote address at the Copenhagen Climate Change summit couldn’t have been more explicit in urging politicians to recognise the severity of the consequences in failing to cut world carbon emissions. He spoke of potentially devastating consequences – for humanity, biodiversity and all life on the planet.

One might wonder just how much more expert and convincing the arguments need to be to incite action. These actions must start happening locally and they need to happen now, if we’re to seize what may be the last chance to make a difference both locally and globally.

The costs of destroying our forests

A UN study found that deforestation alone costs the global economy between two and five trillion dollars per year.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study (equivalent to the Stern report for biodiversity) warns that this cost amounts to an economic catastrophe of an order of magnitude greater than the recent global economic crisis. The UN estimates that for an “annual investment of $45 billion we could secure the delivery of ecosystem services worth some $5 trillion a year.” In the context of recent financial losses on world markets this is not a big price to pay. Although the Commonwealth government declared land clearance as a key threatening process for biodiversity in 2001 (under the EPBC Act 1999) felling of forests has accelerated, with more forests felled in the last 50 years than in the 150 years prior.

The inclusion of Natural Capital in governmental accounting along with sound biodiversity management is imperative if we are to reduce the costs of future losses. Chair of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, Simon Stuart, recognises IYB as a critical opportunity for “…governments to do for biodiversity what they failed to do for climate change in Copenhagen…and key to this will be halting species extinctions, the most irreversible aspect of biodiversity loss.”

Fostering biophilia - inspiration, education, connection

All these statistics are indeed daunting but there’s so much that can be done on an individual and community level starting with cultivating what biologist, E.O. Wilson termed, biophilia, referring to our love, respect and innate affinity for nature. This may indeed be challenging given that numerous societies throughout history have taught their members to fear and conquer nature. Perhaps this had context for primitive peoples but today this disconnection from the natural world has produced environmental and social dysfunction at a global level. What is needed is a massive effort towards reconnecting, fostering biophilia and developing a sustainable relationship with the natural environment. This involves not only knowledge and understanding but also finding ways to engage the heart, allowing people to discover and express their feelings for the environment – through artistic expression, celebration, ritual, whatever ways work for each individual.

The aim is to raise awareness and consciousness in as many people as quickly as possible, injecting environmental concerns into mainstream popular culture.

Biodiversity protection is not just a scientific and political issue, but also a social and ethical one. It is part of the moral stewardship of every person on the planet. Ideas and actions need to start locally, informing the Council of the value of the Wombat’s biodiversity and the implications of its loss.

It’s not about fencing it off to keep out the ravening hordes as some of the aforementioned groups seem to fear, but one of active engagement, opening it up in a sustainable way with biodiversity protection as the priority. All life forms in the Wombat have intrinsic worth and shouldn’t require a human use to justify their protection.

Biodiversity loss is an ongoing problem that must be solved and IYOB is the perfect platform to motivate reconnection with the environment. This requires a global approach in which Australia could play a leading role. If we continue to ignore the urgency and magnitude of the issue we will all suffer the consequences - it is not something or someone else’s habitat that is being destroyed, but our own. After all, there is only one Wombat Forest.