University Of Tasmania

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The political ecology of biogeography

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-25, 23:41 authored by James KirkpatrickJames Kirkpatrick
The Senate of the Commonwealth of Australia occasionally sets up select committees that are charged to investigate matters it perceives to be of moment for the nation. Occasionally I have been requested to present evidence on nature conservation planning and resource development/conservation conflicts. Senators in Australia expect to have six years in their plush seats in the half-buried parliamentary building in Canberra, a relatively long secure tenure for politicians in a democracy. Although accustomed to think in relatively long time lines for politicians, most of the senators listening to me speak appeared slightly bewildered when I talked about the desirability of planning reserve networks that could help carry our biodiversity through the next glacial (Kirkpatrick & Fowler, 1998), once they realized the number of years involved. When Chris Harwood and I suggested to another select committee that an appropriate solution to the running sore of the forest/development debate might lie on the demand side through regulated reduction of the use of wood to produce advertisements and unnecessary packaging, the senators obviously thought that we were away with the fairies - as indeed we were, in contrast to the senators, who were living in the non-alternative fantasy land of the growthist paradigm, in which consumption is an undisputed virtue. If people survive on this planet during the commencement of the next interglacial period, only 120,000 or so years in the future, and the memory of our ultimately brief growthist society persists, I prefer to believe that they will think of our time as one of hubric darkness, the great lesson in how not to live on a planet. On the other hand history suggests that they might just be jealous of our free access to an abundance of fossil fuels, minerals, biodiversity and productive soil and see the return of warmth and rain as an opportunity for the return of economic growth based on newly-bared, glacially rejuvenated soils and reinvading forests (Diamond, 1997). While a career in science does not tend to induce certainty in anything, most, if not all, biogeographers are moderately certain that it is not possible to use irreplaceable material resources at an exponentially increasing rate on a finite planet for any protracted time period. Yet, the political, economic, social and cultural constructs within which biogeographers work and play seem to be be based on an assumption that never-ending growth is both possible and desirable. There can also be little doubt that the natural world, a world that biogeographers tend to value highly, is receding at a substantial rate as a result of the operationalization of the growthist assumption. In Tasmania, an island of 6.7 million ha where I live, the last quarter century has seen approximately 0.25 million ha of native vegetation destroyed (Kirkpatrick & Dickinson, 1982; Kirkpatrick, 1991, unpublished data), and Tasmania is a relatively green backwater of the globally anastomosing growthist society. How do biogeographers cope with the dissonance between the prevailing growthism and their knowledge and values? I advance a tentative classification of response types below, unfortunately based on general observation over thirty years of biogeographic practice, rather than rigorous, repeatable research.


Publication title

Journal of Biogeography





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