Alex Lees Senior lecturer in Conservation Ecology
The series continues and this time I am speaking to Dr Alexander Lees. Alex is a senior lecturer at MMU in the Department of Natural Sciences. “My friends would describe me as a colossal bird nerd and I suppose birds have motivated a lot of work that I have done over the years, much of which has taken place in the tropics”. Alex has been working on Amazonian conservation issues for over 16 years, and therefore is a perfect candidate for a discussion on sustainability.
I asked Alex about a recent paper of his and he said he has been “working on highlighting the concept of extinction denial, a parallel subculture to climate change denial where people are downplaying the extinction crisis.” I questioned whether Alex thought these people who downplay the extinction crises may also deny climate change. “They are part of a nexus with a lot of overlap, often libertarian commentators who don’t want to see change in society, even if we make a better world. Moreover, climate change, biodiversity loss and pandemics are all interrelated and form a single crisis.”
I know Alex has spent a lot of time in rainforests, but I wanted to know when it was he first visited a rainforest and a bit more about the experience. “So, I guess the first time I set foot in a tropical rainforest would have been top end of Australia in Queensland in 2001, I was just looking for unusual endemic birds and mammals, I saw my first platypus there, a mind-blowing moment.”
As a follow, up I enquired into whether Alex recommends others to visit a rainforest and he said “we shouldn’t forget that in the UK we have rainforests, temperate rainforests, which are even rarer, more degraded more fragmented than tropical ones! Alex goes on to mention “we undervalue our resources chronically which is a product of the way we see ourselves as apart from nature instead of within it.”
Talking specifically about the Amazon, a lot of the deforestation there is for cattle ranching, I asked Alex if there’s anything we can do about that here? “We should try to avoid any products that have deforestation in their supply chain, and in terms of Brazil that could be anything from beef and leather to soybeans.” Alex goes on to say, “we can’t really afford as a species to be eating meat at the rate that we do given these huge pressures on land usage, so either cutting out entirely or for those that can’t, reducing our intake to more occasional meals and producing meat that is produced in a more regenerative manner.”
Sticking with the topic of food sustainability, Alex informs me that very little soy for example, is actually directly consumed by humans and most is used to feed animals, and that this needs to change. As an extension of this I asked Alex whether he believes a sustainable diet is critical in the fight against climate change? “Absolutely yes, I mean climate change is essentially an existential risk to all of humanity and is incumbent on all of us to be that change.”
I then asked Alex if he has made any dietary changes for sustainability reasons. “So, I guess I battled my own cognitive dissonance for a long time, I realised it was a completely hypocritical position to be writing all these papers about Amazonian deforestation effects on wildlife whilst gorging myself on all this cheap beef.” Alex then told me he has now largely cut meat out of his diet and consumes no beef (the most damaging meat).
Finally, I asked Alex if he is optimistic about the future. “Define optimism right, I mean I think we are committed to a certain level of damage. what’s important is to erode any doubt about the nature of the challenges which lie ahead of us and I think with that doubt removed and just political barriers to move, I think we can move forward and mitigate the problems we face”.
– By Levi Richardson, a sustainability reporter and recent MetMUnch intern.