Charlie Veron: A Life Underwater

veron life underwater coverCharlie Veron: A Life Underwater

Penguin Viking, 2017

As has happened with other books, particularly where I have some personal connection to their authors, I have come across a published review which says what I would have said (and says it at least as well as I could have said it) and decided that it was better for me to quote excerpts than to write my own review. The quotations below are drawn from the extended review by Tim Elliott for the SMH (you can read it in full here).

… Equal parts memoir, coral reef primer and requiem to a planet, [A Life Underwater] charts a career that could scarcely be imagined today, a love affair with science birthed from childhood wonderment, free-range academia and happy accidents.

… Veron’s achievements are, quite literally, unprecedented. He was the first to compile a global taxonomy of corals – a monumental task that effectively became the cornerstone for all later learning. He was the first to show that, contrary to received wisdom, the Indo-Philippines archipelago has the world’s greatest diversity of coral, not the Great Barrier Reef.

A Life Underwater is a very approachable introduction to reef science since it allows us to learn the science sequentially through Veron’s own journey of discovery. Most of us would benefit from that before tackling his masterly A Reef In Time.

… He also originated a whole new theory about how corals evolved – which is kind of a big thing. Reticulate evolution, as it’s known, was born in large part from coral’s taxonomic complexity, and … describes how the ocean environment has made the boundaries between marine species, such as coral, much more “fuzzy”. …

Just to enlarge upon that: the conventional model of evolutionary change has always been the ‘tree of life’, branching endlessly from primordial beginnings. That paradigm, however, depends crucially on an assumption that branches never recombine, an assumption which failed so spectacularly with corals as to force Veron to replace it with a model which looks more like a mesh.

The best natural analogy for the model I know of (though I’m not sure that Veron has used it) is the ‘braided’ watercourse of (e.g.) Western Queensland’s Channel Country: there is still a clear overall direction but cross-links are common. In the real world, of course, the braiding represents gene flow between species, which has long been known but discounted as exceptional and unworthy of serious attention.

While his rapture at the natural world remains intact, [Veron] has become fixated on climate change, the effects of which, he believes, are now irreversible. “It’s a catastrophe,” he says. “We are looking at a future that is barely comprehensible. There will be immense social disruption, mass starvation, resource wars, cyclones the likes of which we’ve never experienced. Mass extinctions. And it’s going to happen much sooner than people think.” …

A Life Underwater deserves a wide readership, documenting as it does both a fascinating career and an endangered ecosystem of unsurpassed beauty.

As for Veron’s warnings on climate change, we had better believe him and do our best to avert the looming catastrophe.

Do the finer details of climate science matter any more?

RealClimate is a long-running blog publishing, as its tagline says, “Climate science from climate scientists.” Its regular contributors are academics at the top of the field, working for NASA and the IPCC, etc, and many of their peers join the online discussion.

A recent post there by Stefan Rahmstorf, Is there really still a chance for staying below 1.5 °C global warming?,  is so relevant to our own local efforts to avert the impending climate melt-down that I wanted to share it here. Continue reading “Do the finer details of climate science matter any more?”

Selected dystopias

As I’ve said before, SF is valuable for its freedom to conduct thought-experiments, which often illuminate our present by showing us futures which may arise from it. Utopias beckon us along a particular path, while dystopias hold up warning signs saying, “Wrong way – go back.”

In recent weeks I have read three new SF novels which offer such warnings. Continue reading “Selected dystopias”

The difficulty of communicating climate change

I haven’t mentioned RealClimate here for quite some time (old posts are here) but continue to follow its articles and browse the comments pages, because it’s such a great source of informed debate about climate science. This recent exchange amongst the comments on a post about climate “skepticism” caught my eye because Dan Miller’s explanation for the difficulty of communicating the climate crisis is so succinct.

Gordon Shephard said:
… Ernest Becker, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Denial of Death,” argues that anxiety about one’s mortality is (for the vast majority of people) the psyche’s strongest motivator. It is not that people don’t believe they are going to die, or that they fear death specifically, but that they hope that, somehow, their symbolic immortality will be assured as long as their particular vision of the future of humanity persists. Tell someone that their particular version is doomed, and they will fight you tooth and nail.
Certainly some individuals have conscious motives for “sowing confusion.” But many will feel (unconsciously) that the possibility of a radical change in the course of humanity’s future (such as that which will result from significant climate change) is a direct threat to their vision of their symbolic immortality. They will grasp the thinnest of straws just to say it isn’t so.

Dan Miller replied:
In addition to the psychological resistance to a vision of a failed future, there are other psychological barriers to facing climate change.
Humans evolved to filter information and focus on near-term dangers, like a lion approaching. There are six triggers that get us to focus on a problem: 1. Immediate, 2. Visible, 3. Historical Precedence, 4. Simple Causality, 5. Direct Personal Consequences, and 6. Caused by an Enemy. Until recently, climate change had 0 of 6 (you could now say that it is somewhat visible). Number 6 is an important one… imagine if we found out tomorrow that all the excess CO2 is being released by North Korea in order to destabilize the climate. We would take care of that swiftly!
It’s almost as if the climate crisis was designed by a diabolical genius specifically so that we will not respond in time. You can see more on this in my TEDx talk.

Harbingers of the Wet

Honeyeater
Juvenile Blue-faced Honeyeater feeding in the Poplar Gum

Birds have been visiting us in greater numbers than usual thanks to the simultaneous flowering of all our biggest trees, the poplar gum, paperbark and mango. Rainbow Lorikeets have joined our resident friarbirds and honeyeaters (the Yellow Honeyeaters are still around, by the way) taking advantage of the abundance.

In the last week or so I have heard (but not seen) both a Koel and a Torres Strait Pigeon (aka PIP) in my garden. Both are Wet season visitors and both are here earlier than usual, if only by a few weeks. Of course, our weather has not been following ‘normal’ patterns. (Nor has the weather anywhere else, and climate change is largely to blame.) So far we’ve had a warmer and wetter Dry season than usual (120mm in June-July-August, more than offsetting a dry April and May), although not wet enough to relieve our water restrictions.

Rainbow Lorikeet
Rainbow Lorikeet looking for his share