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Planet Earth: Better Off Without Us?

15 May 2010 | Talking Plants

by Tim Entwisle

Director, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria

AFTER LISTENING to six of the brightest minds in the country last night I can announce that the answer to the question is planet Earth better off without us? is...(drumroll)...dunno.

That's a bit unfair. In a very simple sense the Earth would clearly do quite nicely thank you without us. It has done and it will do again. I'll elaborate a little more on this at the end of my post but last night's debate was great fun.

The Botanic Gardens Trust and Australian Museum sponsored this 2010 International Year of Biodiversity event at the Pavilion Restaurant opposite the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The setting, the food and drink, and the company (more than 150 of us I think) were perfect.

The speakers excelled the ambience as they debated the topic 'Planet Earth: better off without us?'. Bernie Hobbs did an exceptional (that's above 'perfect' so I'm soon about to run out of powerful adjectives...) job MCing and putting hecklers in their place. Very impressive!

The quote that inspired the topic was by David Attenborough: "If we disappeared overnight, the world would probably be better off".

On the side of the Affirmative we had Peter Weston from the Botanic Gardens Trust leading the charge with the carbon footprint of extinct lycopods, body lice and his recent trip to Madagascar. Second for the affirmative was Charles Berger from Australian Conservation Foundation.

Charles spoke passionately about topsoil and oil (and our incredibly fickle use of the latter). He concluded that another species could have handled things much better than humans. Their final speaker was the ebullient Hugh Possingham from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and many other jobs and groups. Hugh gave the Earth a medical check up and concluded that ridding the planet of humans would be the best cure.

The negative I summed up (very unfairly) as 'we garden, feed dogs and lice, and we have a rocket'. Stephen Simpson, 2009 NSW Scientist of the Year, began the case with another mention of the louse, and tried to get sympathy for all the bugs and living things that depend on humans. This idea was taken up by Nicki Markus, Chief Conservation Officer with Bush Heritage Australia, who asked who would look after our dogs and cats, and who would stop the rampage of pests and weeds (of course arguably we humans do a better job at spreading than stopping).

Editor-in-Chief of Cosmos, Wilson da Silva, completed the negative case by also mentioning dogs and cats (who would feed them?) and then ending by saying if life on Earth needed to flee the planet at any time they would depend on us humans to make them rockets (a very Noah's Ark view but very entertaining).

After all that, Frank Howarth (Director of the Australian Museum) and I were asked to adjudicate. We tried to do this mathematically and in traditional debating style but failed miserably. Instead, Frank awarded the 'prize' to the Negative and I to the Affirmative. This left it up that traditional TV devise, the clapotron, to decide. It turned out pretty even although the Affirmative may have just crept in...

All good fun. The night ended with Hugh and Nicki leaving us with a few words of advice on we could all make a different. In short: yes we can.

Just to finish off, here are a few notes from the remarks I made at the start of the debate, as part of the introduction with Clarence Slockee and Frank Howarth:

“We seem to be one of the few species – at least on Earth – capable of holding this kind of debate. Imagine the cockroaches debating ‘Planet Earth: Better Off Without Humans?’. I think they probably like us. But what about ants? Maybe not.

“Most plants would probably prefer us not to be here, but seedless bananas need us to reproduce, and many showy orchids now depend on us for pollination – or, as Peter Weston has observed, they have seduced us – I think that means we’ve become their sex slaves!

“The fact that we can have such a debate means that we can reflect on, and change, what we do. Humans are powerful creatures on Earth – along with ants, cockroaches, and orchids. We create biodiversity (via domestication and breeding), and we destroy it.

“We transport weeds and pests, we change the climate. We ‘garden’, for good and bad. Today we got approval to relocate flying foxes from the Botanic Gardens – a complex question of conservation, heritage, culture and science.

“Life is complex. So, my take on today’s question is: Life on Earth will continue while our sun continues to warm it. Humans will probably survive in some way for a bit longer. Whether we are good for the planet depends on what we do over the next few decades. Or, as a friend in Canberra tweeted to me [thanks Jim Croft] if it means just some of us, ‘I have a list’.”


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