11 Aug 2016

Looking to the future with biologist Corey Bradshaw

From Our Changing World, 9:20 pm on 11 August 2016

Scientist Corey Bradshaw has written an open letter to his daughter apologising for the mess her generation will inherit.

He tells Alison Ballance that when he looks at the world his daughter will grow up in, he believes we need to make urgent changes to the world's economic and political systems to avoid society descending into a chaotic fight for dwindling resources. 

Traffic in Beijing.

Traffic in Beijing. Photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Safia Osman / Flickr

Corey Bradshaw began his science career studying New Zealand fur seals for his PhD. These days he is the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change at the University of Adelaide, where he spends his time considering the future of humanity and the natural world in the face of threats such as climate change and a rapidly rising global population.

He believes we need to make dramatic changes to the world's economic and political systems before we can make meaningful progress in saving the environment and ensuring a good quality of life for the world's population.

Corey on the contradictions he faces in day-to-day life

Corey Bradshaw: On the one hand I have a job to do that is to chronicle and measure and predict how environments change. And climate change is one component of that. On the other hand I have a small family, a daughter who I want to nourish and teach about her future possibilities and potentials. But my job … is full of basically bad news. There isn’t a lot of good news in what I do. And I said in the letter [to my daughter] that there is no single metric, whether it be biodiversity, conservation or pollution indices, or deforestation rates, that’s improving. We have small successes here and there … whales have recovered from hunting, that’s true, but the overall health of the population of the ocean has declined drastically.

Corey says we may have to make unpopular or controversial choices to limit greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the impact of global warming

Corey Bradshaw: We might do the right thing, we might recycle here or put solar panels there, or we’ll eat vegetarian three nights a week instead of having meat all the time. We’ll do our little part. But we forget about the bigger picture. We forget, for instance, that Australia is one of the highest emitters per capita of carbon dioxide in the world. We have mostly fossil-fuel based electricity production, mostly coal … One of the things that I advocate is if we’re going to get anywhere near the capacity to reduce emissions to what [Australia needs] to, we need look at things like nuclear power in a big way.

Air pollution in Shanghai.

Air pollution in Shanghai. Photo: CC BY-NC 2.0 leniners / Flickr

Corey Bradshaw’s open letter to his daughter, July 2016

My dearest daughter,

When I see your smiling, exuberant face each morning, it seems like my worldly worries evaporate, at least for the hour or so before I drop you off at your little country school. You prattle on about Water Sparkles and other imaginary creatures and worlds, while I drink my tea and watch you eat your mother's sourdough toast and the eggs you collected from your hens the day before.

Despite the rush of the weekday morning's preparations, your exuberance and boundless anticipation of what the day will bring gives me a peace of mind I am usually unable to replicate for the rest of my day. I will forever treasure these times.

You are 9 now, and quite old enough to comprehend that the world you so enthusiastically desire to experience and understand is changing fast, and mostly in ways that will make your future much more challenging than mine was at your age. I remember broaching the subject of climate disruption with you when you were but 5 years old; it was almost a casual comment that I do not think I prepared you for adequately.

You, being an only child of two well-educated parents, a voracious reader, a lover of all natural things and the only 5-year-old I knew whose most highly-ranked desire was to meet David Attenborough (and still is), were intellectually and emotionally developed enough to grasp and appreciate what the past few generations have been doing to our planet's atmosphere.

Or so I thought.

Intellectually, the concept was certainly not beyond your capacity. You were taught from an early age that there are no gods, no Father Christmas, no Easter Bunny, and no Tooth Fairy. We played the games and pretended, and you always enjoyed it when the gifts appeared mysteriously the next day, the carrot had been nibbled, and the biscuit and glass of milk consumed. You knew it was a game. It was fun but the fantasy was just that - a fantasy.

So I imagined you were old enough to be shown a little reality, that you were mature enough to understand that the natural world - the plants, animals and landscapes you have loved since you could utter your first words - was threatened by the actions of a greedy, short-sighted, stupid, and negligent human population. Intellectually, you understood right away. You had seen deforestation, pollution, sprawling urbanisation and other human-associated ugliness before.

You would become angry at the mere thought of someone cutting down the trees of the forest where your imaginary Water Sparkles tended to their vividly coloured dragons and other pets.

But you were not prepared emotionally for the future horrors of climate change. I am to this day still touched by the tears that flowed mournfully down your beautiful, rosy cheeks when you heard me recount that nightmarish story. I am truly sorry for making you cry that day, and occasionally in the weeks that followed. An attentive father writhes in evolutionarily coded anguish when his daughter feels discomfort, regardless of whether it is emotional or physical. I revel in your joy but I actually feel your pain.

Corey Bradshaw

Corey Bradshaw Photo: University of Adelaide

I will, however, defend my lecture to you because the urgency of action is so great we cannot afford to coddle the next generation in ignorance, for this is the generation that will begin to cop some of the worst ravages of our environmental neglect.

Most people either fail to understand, ignore entirely, or downright deny the fact that our climate is changing with a pace and magnitude the planet has not experienced for millions of years.

We are veering dangerously into uncharted territory, and all this is on top of the worst biodiversity extinction crisis in the past 65 million years, a heaving and growing human population that will likely exceed 9.5 billion by mid-century, planet-wide toxification, dwindling seafood resources, and increasingly precarious animal pollination services for our crops.

We may be in a period of unprecedented peace insofar as the number of people dying violently is concerned, but rising food prices, increasing political extremism, a tip-of-the-iceberg refugee crisis, and predicted conflicts over freshwater resources, will almost certainly reverse this trend during your lifetime. I fear you will bear the brunt of the inevitable conflicts arising from an increasing population fighting to monopolise a dwindling pool of resources, and my heart aches with my impotency to protect you from them.

My profession is one of constant bad news - there is not one, single metric of environmental performance that is improving globally. I will admit that this relentless stream of negativity has affected my mental state, and has probably made me impatient with you at times. For that, I apologise.

Through my work though, I hope to convince enough people of enough political clout that our future is not predestined to descend into the hellish depths of resource warfare. Change for the worse is inevitable, but we have technologies, social capacities, finances, and even historical precedents to be able to avert the worst of it.

If I can claim on my deathbed that I tried my best to diminish the hardships that you will one day endure, I will have justified my actions as a scientist, and most importantly, as a parent.

I hope you can forgive our generation and be clever enough to avoid the mistakes we have already made and the ones we are still unfortunately perpetuating.

My love for you and my need to protect you helps me get out of bed each morning and face the overwhelming challenges of my profession.

Thank you for being my inspiration.


Corey Bradshaw was recently in conversation with Jim Mora on Saturday Morning.

He blogs at Conservation Bytes.