Once upon a time, not so very long ago, advances in science, and increases in the numbers of people trained in science, were causing much needed improvements in the way we live in our environment. Some research before the war, by amateurs and museum and university professionals, but it was after the war when universities and CSIRO exploded into life that Australian ecology boomed. Behaviour and ecology of individual species was studied, related to evolutionary and taxonomic relationships; and surveys established species distribution and ecosystem composition. Big undertaking to work out the biogeography and ecology of a continent, but done, slowly and steadily over the last 60 years, by the scientific community of Australia, building on previous work, checking each other’s results, repeating studies in other areas or on related species, adding new pieces to puzzles.
Because this period saw a marked increase in population and development in Australia, ecologists also examined the effects of these changes. Looked at land clearing, run-off into the Reef, fire, hunting, fishing, climate change, feral animals, weeds, agriculture, mining, pollution, forestry, tourism. By 2000 a very solid body of science, based on the work of tens of thousands of scientists, told us the environmental problems we faced, and actions needed. For most parts of Australia, and most groups of organisms, it was quite clear what needed doing to prevent extinctions and ecosystem damage, to conserve as much of the Australian environment as could be conserved after 200 years of unchecked development (and a lot of rich people).
Oh some ecologists might think one factor was important in conserving a species, others might put more emphasis on another. There might be different interpretations of how much threat a particular species was under, or about how much habitat would enable a population to survive. But the broad thrust of what needed to be done, if we didn’t want the Australian environment and most of its species to go down the tubes, was agreed in the science community. With that strong foundation of knowledge we made progress in Environmental Impact Statements; setting aside wilderness areas and national parks on land and sea; changes to farming procedures; stopping some development; putting conditions on mining and manufacturing industries; increasing water flow in rivers; setting catch and harvesting limits; identifying and protecting particular threatened species.
Didn’t suit people who wanted another 200 years of unchecked development to make themselves richer. Didn’t suit them at all. Costs increased to prevent toxic chemicals leaking. Stands of rare woodland saved from bulldozers. Water extraction from rivers restricted, no-fishing zones created, fewer houses built on sand dunes, maybe a price put on carbon. Whatever the region, or the species concerned, there would be a clear response from science to describe the situation and the conservation measures needed. Inevitably if developers, of whatever kind, had to restrict their behaviour then they had to restrict their profits, a bit. At last the real costs of development were being recognised and charged to those who stood to benefit most from destroying some environmental asset. Decisions were being made not by the developer, or by politicians with a pro-developer ideology, but by impartial and objective scientists, just telling it like it was.
Oh there were ways around it. If you needed an EIS that wouldn’t get in the way then you bought a consulting firm that would make sure it didn’t. Politicians (prompted by lobbyists, former politicians who had made a lot of money outside of politics) who relied on your donations would overrule the interests of any pesky endangered species who were getting in the way of money money money. Media proprietors would run campaigns to stop the interests of creepy crawlies being put above those of humans. Union members, promised jobs jobs jobs, would run those greenies out of town. A doddle really, once you got into the swing of the thing.
But always a cloud on the horizon of the blue sky developer’s day. You might get approval to knock down the last koala tree, pump the Murray dry, catch the last blue fin tuna, flatten all the sand dunes, warm the planet, but, like a Greek chorus, these pesky scientists would keep saying it wasn’t right, was causing damage, species being lost, rivers killed, planets destroyed. Just wouldn’t shut up about it. Because they were seen as being both independent and objective, and because you were seen, oh so unfairly, as being only interested in money and not the well-being of the planet your grandchildren would inherit, this chorus was gradually having political effects. Making politicians wonder if the loss of votes from a concerned public was really compensated for by donations from unconcerned developers.
What to do, what to do? Long term strategy, get your friends in the media and politics to launch an all out attack on Science itself. Keep denigrating scientists, stealing emails, pursuing them in court, publishing articles denying everything they say. Scientists trusted like nurses? They will rank lower than used car salesmen after this campaign, and if that means destroying 500 years of scientific advances in the process, well, what then? But going to take some time to completely discredit all science, and in the mean time there are sand dunes that want bulldozing, rivers to impound, fish to catch, forests to clear, coal to burn. Short term tactic needed – set a scientist to catch a scientist.
In any profession there are loners – people, often but not always retired, who feel aggrieved not having achieved due recognition; feuds never forgiven nor forgotten; people hungry for more money than pensions provide; people with extreme political ideology in either direction; people with professional and personal links to people in business enterprises; people with a bee-in-the-bonnet quirky theory never accepted by mainstream science. All of them are available for hire if the new price is right. Probably even if it isn’t – often not money but fame and recognition is wanted, and will be achieved. Their task will be to say loudly and often that there are plenty of trees, water in rivers, fish; or that pollution and CO2 are not problems. Name an issue on which 999 scientists agree and there will be one who will swear black is white, up is down, and, if necessary, that the moon is made of green cheese and Americans never landed on it.
Now you and I would think, being rational people, that when someone, with links to, say, the forestry industry, told us that the forests were fine, while 999 scientists without such links told us they weren’t, the one would simply be ignored, perhaps even laughed at. But in the days of he said-she said journalism his singular yea-saying will be given equal status with the 999 nay-sayers. He will be interviewed on tv breakfast shows, invited on to panel discussions, invited to produce op-ed pieces for newspapers. Indeed the fact that he is so far outside the mainstream, way up a dry river without a canoe, is a sign of wonderful quirky maverick behaviour, not irrelevance. A character, in short, who dares challenge mainstream science. With this media identity he will then be given serious scientist status – invited to address industry groups, political rallies, parliamentary committees. His credentials and ideas will be unchallenged in these venues, because he is already famous for being famous, and because his ideas (and ideology) gell so nicely with those on the committee who believe that nothing, nothing at all, should impede, in the slightest, industry, mining, forestry, development, fisheries. Since one man is willing to say there is no problem the development-at-any-cost politicians, and their corporate friends, can claim that there is no unanimous scientific objection to cutting down the last tree, catching the last fish, burning the last piece of coal.