As a teenager, Richard Hobbs was inspired by American biologist Paul Ehrlich but, 40 years on, he wonders if any lessons on sustainability have been learned.
"The wheatbelt, where I have done most of my work since coming to Australia, was degraded by rapid and over-zealous development," Winthrop Professor Hobbs said. "There was a push to grow as much wheat as possible and now we are faced with loss of diversity and salinity problems that are unlikely to go away.
"But still the Government - both State and federal - seems to want to push ahead with a blinkered approach of development at all costs, with projects such as the gas plant at James Price Point, and the approval of oil exploration leases off the coast at Margaret River.
"There doesn't seem to be any learning from the past at all."
Paul Ehrlich became a household name after his book, The Population Bomb, was published in 1968. His warnings about unchecked population growth and limited resources struck a chord with the young Richard Hobbs, who abandoned his idea of becoming a pilot and studied ecological science at Edinburgh University, one of only two universities in the UK which then offered such courses.
"I did my postdoc at Stanford, where Paul Ehrlich is, so we have become colleagues," Professor Hobbs said.
He came to WA 25 years ago. "It's a fantastic place for a biologist, but a lot of the environment has been damaged so that provides great opportunities for restoration ecology," he said.
It is for his sustained contribution to restoration ecology that Professor Hobbs was awarded the Ecological Society of Australia's gold medal for 2010.
One of the high points of his career was his election to the Australian Academy of Sciences, but he says that this medal is maybe even more precious, as it signifies recognition by his peers: "people who know what I am doing."
The award was also for his work in improving communication among scientists and between scientists and the general public.
"Scientists - and in fact all specialists - find it hard to communicate outside their discipline but, particularly in environmental issues, no one person in one field has all the answers, no matter what the problem is, and so we have no choice but to communicate across disciplines," he said.
When he first came to Australia, Professor Hobbs worked for CSIRO, where he took communications training and learned that even simple parts of a scientist's work can be unintelligible for non-scientists. So he set about delivering this message to young scientists.
"I get them to talk about their PhD research in two minutes, which forces them to hone their communication skills." He also uses an exercise where he distributes a piece of writing that includes views about religion, sex and politics, and asks the scientists to give feedback on it. "They learn from this that people have so many different opinions and ways of seeing things and that's a very important lesson in communication," he said.
Professor Hobbs said that climate change, like salinity, was unlikely to go away, and society had to learn how to adapt to changes, such as reduced rainfall.
With his Australian Laureate funding, his research team is looking at how we manage ecosystems in this changing world, from the micro-level of soils to the macro-questions of what's possible.
Published in UWA News, 26 July 2010