Biodiversity, biophilia, health and the human prospect In February 2016 I gave the keynote talk on the topic of biodiversity and health to almost 800 delegates at the second ASEAN conference on biodiversity, held in Bangkok, Thailand. My slides are publicly available here, and my abstract here.
Overall, I found the meeting (generously funded by the Thai government) attractive and important but also frustrating. This was not due to the individuals who attended, but a systemic problem whose causal factors are deeply embedded in the nature of power and governance. Delegates were successful and many had a high rank in government and semi-government positions. If there was a single activist in the Australian sense (e,g, from GreenPeace or the Rainforest Alliance) I did not meet them, nor did they make themselves visible, though there were some attendees who I know are deeply committed to slowing the loss of biodiversity. As a group, delegates acted in ways that were respectful, and possibly even supportive of existing power structures and inequalities.
I am the only Australian IPCC contributor, to date, to have been arrested over the moral issue of climate change. (Not that I mentioned that!) I tried to be a little challenging, but self-censored nonetheless. I did not breathe a word about the Thai monarchy, reputedly so rich and powerful. I did mention population growth as a deep underlying factor for the loss of biodiversity (despite the largely Catholic Philippines being a prominent member of ASEAN) and I also tried to describe how high population growth is also a cause of poverty. I suggested "embarrassing" end-users of products which harm biodiversity and which involve immense cruelty in their production, such as to highly social and intelligent elephants. What I really had in mind was stigmatising end users as cruel and sometimes gullible. For example I had thought to suggest that men using rhinoceros horns as an aphrodisiac might be better off chewing their fingernails (since both are keratin). Instead I meekly called for "more evidence".
Another taboo area was corruption. I privately was told a story about a royal family in a South East Asian nation (not Brunei), with perhaps a hundred members, all with a sense of entitlement, and living very well. But their wealth is underpinned by biodiversity loss. (Brunei, actually, has comparatively high biodiversity, as its wealth is from oil; its fertility rate is now at replacement.) My informant, another academic, was, a little like me, not really part of the biodiversity conserving “establishment”. He asked an excellent question about corruption, in plenary, which was left completely unanswered.
The best thing for me was an idea that occurred in preparing the talk. This is that biodiversity may be likened to the software in a computer. Destroy too much biodiversity and we lose much functionality of the computer, even though the computer’s principles (e.g. evolution) are intact. It is also possible to change the biodiversity and thus reprogramme the software to, for example, increase the chance of certain diseases, from Lyme Disease to the viruses Nipah and Ebola. Ultimately, damaging keystone species or keystone ecological niches (eg pollinators) might also reduce agricultural productivity, with profound consequences for health and other aspects of human well-being.
It can be hoped that a cultural shift will occur in which a critical mass of people, not only in ASEAN nations but also in Australia, China and elsewhere will, in fact, behave in ways that are biosensitive. We may evolve an “eco-noösphere.” But we are not there yet.
Still, after the conference, I asked a Thai friend if flying foxes were ever hunted. She was almost horrified at the suggestion.
flying foxes at dusk, Thailand. Photo: Sam-Ang Seubsman