David Suzuki is one of the great moral leaders in the world today. For decades, now, he has advocated a changed culture, changed relationships between humanity and nature, and a shift in values away from self-centred opportunism and toward connectivity and mutualism. It was great to read the text of a recent speech and learn that he believes that many of our contemporary leaders, the Abbot government in Australia and the Stephen Harper government in Canada to name two relevant groups, could rightly be charged with ‘criminal negligence through wilful blindness’. Their willingness, indeed their raging eagerness, to trash the future in order to secure their own power and influence in the present is surely a crime against the generations to come. Under the label ‘intergenerational justice’ we recognise our ethical responsibilities to the future. If we trash those responsibilities, we will suffer for it, our children will suffer for it, their children and children’s children will suffer for it, and the great thriving mass of earthly life will suffer for it. To think in terms of generations is also to confront the fact that many generations will not come forth, as whole species of creatures (plants, animals, fungi and others) go extinct. For many, the word ‘future’ has no meaning.
Climate change is just one factor in the whole process of trashing the future, but it is a major factor, and one that should have been addressed forcefully decades ago, as many thoughtful analysts have told us. The Garnaut Review in Australia, the Stern Review in the UK, Al Gore in the USA, and the on-going work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have all made it abundantly clear that it is better by every measure of social, economic and environmental well-being to take action sooner rather than later. So when Tony Abbot got rid of Australia’s Climate Commission, the disservice to our nation, our society, our environment and our future was potentially incalculable.
Lots of us aren’t willing to let that happen. The good news is that we have now entered the era of ‘take-back’. The newly established Climate Council will act “largely in the same way as the commission”, Tim Flannery tells us. It will continue the work of informing the public on climate change impacts. Anyone who doubts the value of the work of the Climate Commission should read Will Steffen’s report ‘The Angry Summer’. It details the facts of the 2012-2013 summer, including the fact that the Bureau of Meteorology had to add new hot colours to its diagrams to account for the new, off the top of the range, temperatures recorded around Australia this past year. The new Climate Council will rely on donations from the public, and the former climate commissioners will work pro bono. This is the moment to join the take-back: sign up, donate, and become part of a movement to take back climate science.
Take-back has been coming for a long time, and it is now shaping up in fascinating ways. Back in 1996 J-K Gibson-Graham published a wonderful book: The End of Capitalism (as we knew it). The key idea was that capitalism is not the only game in town: we all participate in numerous and diverse economies. The book was a feminist analysis that re-visioned alternative economies. Just a few weeks ago they published a new book: Take Back the Economy. The co-authors are Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy, it is published by University of Minnesota Press, and it has the lovely subtitle: ‘An accessible guide to demystifying the economy and creating a more just and sustainable world’. The Press has done a great job in allowing the authors to produce a seriously deep and theoretically informed book that is still accessible way beyond the academic world. I particularly love the title of the last chapter: ‘Any time, anywhere’. Take Back the Economy affirms the capacity of every person everywhere to become involved in their own destiny.
A few weeks ago I interviewed Kathie Gibson. We sat amongst the rock orchids that grow prolifically in our sandstone area in south-west Sydney, and we talked about the key ideas of community economies. We discussed how ‘economy’ can be re-framed to encompass the work we do to survive well, and how the commons includes not just humans but other living beings and habitats. The video is now posted on the Environmental Humanities journal website.
Take-back matters both for the future and, equally, for today. Will we be puppets, manipulated by whatever coalition of power happens to jerk our strings? Or will we be active participants in our own lives and destinies?
My friend Lorraine Shannon once described dark times as these moments ‘when ethics, tenderness, and the embrace of earth others are being trampled on’. Lorraine is a fellow member of the Kangaloon Group for Creative Ecologies, a ‘fellowship of poets, scholars, artists and activists in dialogue with the current cascade of ecological degradation and diminishment of life’. I keep coming back to her words because they so clearly draw us into realms of vulnerability, love and participation in our lively planet, and so vividly express the violence that rages against life in its fullness. In dark times we need words of witness. We need to share insights with each other, and we need to be reminded that what is passing for ‘normal’ is actually a full-frontal assault on life in both the present and in the future.
Just this week the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced plans to invite world leaders to a climate change summit in response to the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and scientific warnings about the consequences are becoming ever more vigorous. At the same time, the new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot continues his charge into the heart of darkness by abolishing both the Climate Commission and the Climate Change Authority, and by getting rid of senior public servants who have served the nation on matters of climate science and the future.
We know the climate change issue well because it has the greatest profile, but of course it is just one big part of a much wider set of entwined events that include the great mass extinction event now in process, the acidification of the oceans, the accumulation of plastic waste, the loss of soils and fertility, the loss of rainforests, and of course the rampant consumption that fuels the work of tearing up and wrecking planet Earth. And then there is the wreckage of denial: the insistence that these trampling assaults are really just business as usual.
Isabelle Stengers, one of the great continental philosophers, holds that the lure of contemporary darkness is like sorcery – we are bewitched, or ensorcelled, by the seductions of darkness. To break out of the spell, she says, we need antidotes. Not just rational arguments, although they matter too, but other kinds of conversations entirely. We need spell-breakers.
A few weeks ago I immersed myself in a powerful spell-breaker at the TarraWarra Museum of Art in Healesville, Victoria. The Director Victoria Lynn has mounted an exhibition called ‘Animate/Inanimate’ which includesthe work of leading contemporary artists, including Janet Laurence and Louise Weaver from Australia, Allora & Calzadilla of the USA, Amar Kanwar of India and Lin Tianmiao of China. All the work explores impacts on earth life of global economic assaults, climate change and direct human violence. The works are haunting in their beauty and intensity, and include sculptural works, sound installations and video works. Dr Lynn writes (in the catalogue) that the artists in ‘Animate/Inanimate’ are not communicating ‘about life’ but rather are imbued ‘with life’. This is the spell-breaker: the reality of encounter that artists offer us; the seeming magic of how they enable us to see and understand more deeply and strongly.
The gallery space is wonderfully generous. We move slowly, almost as in a procession, through works that take our breath away, knocking us sideways, if not totally off our feet, with their power, beauty, energy, passion, commitment, care, concern, drama, tenderness, and their calmly contained but implicit desperation. I was especially thrilled to spend time with the installation produced by Janet Laurence (there will be more about the other artists in future posts). She is a Sydney artist, and another member of our Kangaloon group. Her work has been described as occupying ‘the liminal zones or meeting places of art, science, imagination and memory’. Last year the philosopher-artist Jim Hatley (another Kangaloon member) and I visited her in her studio, and also spent time with her large work ‘The memory of nature’ in the Art Gallery of NSW.
Janet gives witness to violence by working with its effects in the lives of plants, animals, and habitats. Her work becomes an ethical call to the vulnerability of others. It speaks into dark times without in any way becoming consumed by them. Jim wrote about ‘The memory of nature’:
‘Her works are inhabited by a loving tenderness for the living world, which, we are called to acknowledge, inevitably is also the dying world, indeed, the world become dead. Memory reminds its viewer how the distance between the unborn in the womb and the recently living being rendered back into earthly elements is not so far. Laurence would have human-beings enter into the liminal space between death and life, not in order to renounce earthly existence and all its chthonic mysteries, but in order to become fully acquainted with it and them. (Wednesday, September 5, 2012)
The TarraWarra installation is called ‘Fugitive’. It addresses itself to the precarious place where life and death, both for individuals and for species, hover at the brink of disaster. The space is divided into a number of veiled areas which Janet calls cells. The veils overlap so that one can pull a section aside and enter the cell. There the visitor is brought into intimacy and empathy, and into new possibilities for caring and concern.
In ‘Fugitive’, as in other recent work, Laurence unsettles the visitor with veils, lighting, sounds and motion. She writes (in the catalogue): ‘Within the gallery space I want to bring us into contact with the life-world. With a focus on the animals and their loss, I think about the loneliness of the last one of a species. What was their death? I wonder about their umwelt, the unique world in which each species lives.’
Along with the veils, there are also screens on which images are projected in ghostly beauty. And always there is a dimly mysterious light, invoking the haunting sense that, in Richard Flanagan’s evocative words, ‘We live in the twilight of some terrible moment, the meaning of which we can only grasp at’.
The burden of living in a world dominated by humans becomes disturbingly tangible. There are mirrors, and one sees oneself as part of the story. One starts to sense the incommensurate gap between our capacity to harm and our capacity to avert all that harm. The astonishing tenderness of her work is syncopated to a slow rhythm of breath. We slow down, adjust, breath in, breath out; we are stunned by the fragility of it all. We walk amongst veils, we go in, we go out, and as we breathe again, and remain within the world of the living, we experience the unassailable kinship with all those whose breath may never come again.
In Laurence’ work we see ourselves living now at a threshold of generational transition in which future life will either collapse or will flourish. We bring to the exhibit our knowledge that the zombie politics of darkness are dedicated to ruthlessly squandering the possibilities for earth life. And we are struck more forcibly than ever with the realisation that artists are among the great spell-breakers of our time. They are our magicians, our messengers who return from places of deep truth with visions of transformation.
Artists bring meaning alive for us, they catch at our minds and hearts, they enable us to become part of the work that refuses ‘business as usual’. Breath is the movement of life, the exhalation, and in-spiration. Artists are those who take our breath away. And artists are those who help us breathe again, re-inspired and transformed, as Ross Gibson has so vividly explained.
Artists return us to awe, love, wonder, joy, grief – all those encounters that fill our hearts without requiring justification – that simply are, as they erupt in our lives. All those encounters that grab hold of us without our asking, that take us out of ourselves, that remind us of the great and mysterious beauties of life, and return us to our humble place as part of the on-going story of life.
The force of disaster hit me in the heart when, as a young woman, I heard Bob Dylan sing ‘Hard Rain’. The 1962 song elaborates an old American folk genre that works with question and answer. In the familiar songs of my childhood, the questions concerned how he managed to give his love a chicken that had no bones, or whether his darling could bake a cherry pie. The witness in ‘Hard Rain’ is no longer the naïve Billy Boy. He is asked: where did you go, what did you see, and what will you do? Still today his answers impel themselves into us with terrible force and anguish.
In a voice stunned by violence, the young man reports on a multitude of forces that drag the world into catastrophe. In the 1960s I heard the social justice in the song. In 2013 the ecological and political issues ambush me. The song starts and ends in the dying world of trees and rivers. The poet’s words in both domains of justice are eerily prophetic. They call across the music, and across the years, saying that a hard rain is coming. Long before climate change became a major public issue, Dylan’s words sing into ‘extreme weather events’. Flood and drought, poisons and waste stalk the world of ‘hard rain’.
My research has led me to develop the concept of double death through which I explore some of the ways in which we become partisans with death rather than life. On the one hand, double death is a threshold process in which the work that promotes death starts to overwhelm the work that promotes life. On the other hand, double death presses us to take a stand: for life or for death. This choice is pressed upon us not because life and death are in themselves oppositional but because the work that amplifies death is destroying the capacity of life to twist death back into life. Increasingly, life is struggling or failing to hold death in balance; increasingly life is struggling to affirm and promote relationships that sustain life and death in their mutual integrity.
Species are rendered locally or everywhere extinct, billabongs and springs are emptied of water, and soils are turned into scald areas, and forests are clear-felled. Dust storms, major heat events, massive bushfires, desertification, and acid sulfate soils stalk the land. This violence produces vast expanses where life founders. It amplifies death not only by killing pieces of living systems, but by diminishing the capacity of living systems to repair themselves, to return death back into life. What can a living system do if huge parts of it are exterminated? Where are the thresholds beyond which death takes over from life? Are we not exceeding those thresholds violently and massively not only through direct destruction but also through all the indirect, amplifying unpredictabilities of climate change?
And still, the damage rolls on. As research scholars we, too, are vulnerable. The degree of vulnerability shifts with shifts in social life, and the Coalition has just announced a new shift. Under proposed new rules, research funded by the Australian Research Council should no longer address national priorities. As reported in the Daily Telegraph, ‘Coalition sources said they believed that there was “waste” in the grants process and funding of projects that didn’t meet the Coalition’s priorities’. One of the ARC-funded projects singled out for approbation concerns public art and climate change. It is part of a research initiative at RMIT on Art and Environmental Sustainability. Research scholars in this initiative investigate ‘how cultural interpretations of the non-human world contribute to our knowledge of the environment and the crisis in global ecological sustainability’.
Tony Abbott may, perhaps, recognise the danger of research that brings cultural analysts and industry partners together to address major issues of how our people and our environments can remain resilient, adaptive and sustainable under the weight of all the ‘hard rain’ that is coming. When ‘coalition sources’ say that research must be responsive to the coalition’s priorities, let us be clear that they are not identifying the priorities of the nation, or of biodiversity, or of international conventions, international law, or the local integrity of bio-social communities. When they target the ARC-funded research project on ‘Public Art and Climate Change’ they perform to perfection the double bind.
Over fifty years ago, Gregory Bateson developed the concept of the double bind to describe a coercive and surreptitious form of power. In the context of the Coalition’s attack on research, it goes something like this:
1) As good citizens of an open democracy, we should all work for the sustainability of the nation;
2) The coalition will decide what is good for a sustainable nation, and will disallow anything that gets in the way of its own political agenda;
3) No critique will granted legitimacy.
Double death walks the land in just such cloaks of coercive power. ‘The executioner’s face is always well hidden’, in Dylan’s gloriously truthful words. Well hidden, that is, by being put out there in plain sight: behind a mask of the ordinary – of economic rationality and ‘business as usual’.
Dylan sings the bleakest and most powerful existential stand for witnessing that I have ever encountered. The words bear no story at all; they give us a series of compelling images, an account of impending calamity. The artistry of the poet (Bob/Billy Boy/Dylan) offers sequences of reports that pile wreckage upon wreckage. When Dylan’s questioner asks him what he will do now, he replies that he will go back out to keep on witnessing even if it kills him.
His song defends the integrity of life against destruction. And still it seems to call us ever more provocatively. Far from the sweet world of cherry pies and babies without crying, we are called again, and again, to rise up in defence of our capacity as humans to be involved in our own destiny and in the future of life on earth.
Nothing less is at stake. These are our times. The rain will get harder.
The election results here in Australia are not good news for wildlife, ecosystems that have sustained minimal human impact, and all the human beings who research, rescue, love, care for, and defend animals, plants and ecosystems that are at risk.
In dark times we need stories that help us sustain our moral compass, as Hannah Arendt told us many years ago. It was really great, therefore, to see that dingo research has won one of the prestigious Eureka Prizes organised by the Australian Museum. The award is timely both because of the quality of the research, and because of the social context of dingo vilification.
In my book Wild Dog Dreaming I wrote about the fact that there is in Australia a concerted war against dingoes. On the physical front, the war is being waged with 1080 poison, traps and bullets. On the propaganda front, the war is being waged around questions of sheep and cattle security, and presents itself as a war of terror, emblemised by hanging the dead bodies of dingoes and other canines from trees, posts and fences.
Research tells a different story. When they are not under attack, dingoes behave as top predators: they regulate their own populations and promote biodiversity within their territories. Much of our knowledge about dingoes as top predators comes from the work of a dedicated team. On September 4, 2013 the Eureka Prize for Environmental Research was awarded to the team and the research.
The team: Professor Chris Johnson, University of Tasmania; Dr Michael Letnic, University of New South Wales; Dr Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Dr Arian Wallach, James Cook University; and Adam O’Neill, Evelyn Downs Station.
The citation: “Professor Chris Johnson and his team’s work is conservation with bite! It has shown how the dingo helps sustain biodiversity in Australian ecosystems. It points the way to improved environmental management in which the dingo could be used to aid the recovery of degraded lands and therefore help protect threatened species.”
My friend Arian Wallach and I have had many fascinating conversations about life, death, dingoes, ecosystem cascades, and more. She and Adam O’Neill now live at Evelyn Downs station where they both manage the cattle and carry out dingo research. From her place on the station, Arian is advocating a wonderful proposal: Predator-Friendly Pastoralism.
Here it is in her own words:
“Evelyn Downs started out as a dingo-recovery study site, which we visited twice for annual surveys of mammals, plants and the dingoes of course. It was after the second field trip that Adam was invited to take on the position of station manager, and we snatched the opportunity to live in and manage one of our study sites. The most difficult aspect of our work over the years has been finding areas that are free of persecution (aka 1080-baiting) for an extended period of time. Living in our study site provides a measure of protection for the dingoes, stability for our research, and continual interactions and observations of this changing ecosystem. Rather than visiting our study site once a year, we are there every day to see and document the recovery of the dingo population and the cascading effect this has on other wildlife, plants – and the cattle. Evelyn Downs, together with a handful of other pioneering pastoral stations across the country, are the first to trial predator-friendly pastoralism. Perhaps one day soon, alongside labels such as “organic” and “free-range”, we’ll have a new “predator-friendly” label with a little image of a howling dingo on the package too… “
This past week-end I learned a lot about how to breed devils – Tasmanian devils, that is!
I visited the Healesville Sanctuary – a not-for-profit conservation organisation dedicated to fighting wildlife extinction – where there is a large and extremely interesting area dedicated to Devils. It was there that I learned that their ears go brilliantly red when they are excited or angry because of increased blood flow. Indeed, even when the sunlight shines through them the redness is startling. If the evolutionary advantage is to increase the impression of ferocity, I can state that I am one mammal who gets the message, and respects it!
Sarcophilus harrisii has a global reputation as the fierce cartoon creature ‘Taz’. According to Wikipedia, he was developed by Warner Brothers as a Looney Tune character, but later got his own sitcom ‘Taz-Mania’. He has appeared in video games, and has his own facebook page. The ‘Taz’ legend is a great story of how a feisty little animal from a small island in the Southern Ocean became an international star.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is very bad indeed. Over the past twenty years or so, Tasmanian devils – the real ones who live in the Tasmanian wilderness – have become afflicted with a highly contagious cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). It is 100% fatal. Infected Devils die within a year or two. Death is painful, as their face becomes swollen up and eaten away. Many of them die of starvation because they cannot eat; many others die of organ failure and other effects of cancer. The cancer is transmitted from individual to individual by direct contact. As everyone who has followed Taz the cartoon character would know, Devils are combative creatures. They do a lot of scavenging, and as they gather around a dead body (often road kill, these days), they fight and bite. Their aggression is face-to-face. Every time a diseased Devil is bitten on the face, cancer cells are transmitted to the biter. Without biting, there would be no Devil social life. But bites lead to cancer, and the disease continues to spread.
Devils were given that name by early settlers in Tasmania who encountered a creature that to them was way out of the norm: a carnivorous marsupial with fierce teeth and fierce behaviour, with little red ears and very large mouths and teeth … you get the picture. According to a government website, which also includes a clip of their eerie calls, Tasmanian Devils were disliked by Anglo-Celtic settlers, and a bounty was placed on them. Over a period of more than a century, Devils were trapped and poisoned. On account of human action, they were headed for extinction. Then in 1941 they became protected by law, again by human action, and populations started to recover – until the 1990s outbreak of cancer.
Now the Tasmanian Devil is listed as endangered. With an 80% population crash over the past twenty years, Devils will become extinct in the wild within a decade or two unless the disease can be stopped. Interestingly, the disease is spreading across Tasmania from east to west. This means that populations still free of DFTD are mostly on the rugged west coast, an area that includes one of the most beautiful wilderness areas on earth – the Tarkine (pronounced tar-kine [as in mine]).
While life in the wild is dire, rescue operations are thriving. Numerous disease-free Devil populations have been airlifted to safe zones. One such population lives at the Healesville Sanctuary in the Yarra Valley of the state of Victoria. My visit to the Sanctuary brought me face-to-face with Devils (thanks to a strong glass barrier between us), and face-to-face with an institution that is committed, in the most intelligent and compassionate ways, to ensuring that Devil populations remain viable. When the day comes that the cancer is eradicated and Devils can return home, there will be healthy populations ready to go.
Signage at the Sanctuary announced that as of this year’s breeding season, 101 pups have been born. The breeding is carefully managed, as it must be when working with a small gene pool. Some of the young ones have become habituated to humans and are brought out as ambassadors. The event I attended on Sunday was a symposium on the theme ‘Animate/Inanimate’. It was jointly organised by the TarraWarra Art Museum, which was hosting a show with the same name, and by the Healesville Sanctuary itself. For our education and delight, the Sanctuary folks organised a petting session with a baby Devil named Mulana.
It is a long and ethically twisty path from the Tasmanian wilderness to a Sanctuary with a baby that people can actually touch. Devils belong in the bush. They are not pets. They need to grow up learning to be Devils, not huggable cuties. But given the mortality factors, and the damaged life expectancies, refuge areas where individuals can live without contracting cancer, and where new, viable populations can be established, are central to the longer-term survival of the species.
Another side of captive breeding is the question of release. As long as the captive populations breed well, their numbers will outgrow the capacity of zoos and other refuges to house them. Where will all the Devils go? The Healesville Sanctuary is establishing a number of sites on mainland Australia that will be fenced against invasive predators such as foxes, and will be large enough for the Devils to live well on their own. Young Devils learn how to live the Devil life as they interact with others; they need the right conditions to be able to do this. The plan is that in due course the Devils will go home to Tasmania.
The possibility of return raises another question: will there be any wilderness left to return to? A series of national and state governments and ministers have made it clear that although protection of wildlife would be a nice thing to do (perhaps), humans come first. Of course this rhetoric is deceptive: not all humans come first. Mining companies come first; the timber industry comes first; jobs in primary industry come first, ahead of other human interests, activities and modes of employment. It is not just forests, heaths and animals who come last; it is also the people who love the bush, love bushwalking, love animals and wildlife, who spend money to travel to places that are wild and free in order to be able, if only briefly, to interact with ecosystems that have not been massively altered, and who donate generously to rescue programs. Among those who come last in the zombie politics of cruelty, consumption and fear, are all the people, and there are many, who believe that the earth is a better place when the multitude of lives and ecosystems are not all perverted by being classed as resources to be consumed or impediments that are best destroyed.
The Tarkine is a region of western Tasmania that is wonderfully wild, in the sense of being relatively free from resource extraction. It contains the largest area of Gondwanan cool-temperate rainforest in Australia, as well as vast and staggeringly beautiful heaths and headlands. It isn’t wilderness in the sense of being a place without humans. The Tarkine also holds a large concentration of Aboriginal Australian archaeological sites; it has been inhabited for millennia. It also contains some mines that are operational, but are geographically contained.
It was a shock to many of us earlier this year when the federal Minister for the Environment Tony Burke rejected the advice from the Australian Heritage Council that 433,000 hectares be heritage listed. Instead, he applied National Heritage Listing only to a small area along the coastline. The decision also rejected a UNESCO World Heritage Committee recommendation that the entire region be protected. He thus opened the Tarkine for mining and logging, and he was very clear in saying that he put the needs of people ahead of environmental needs.
And so the question leaps out: if the people whose statutory duty it is to protect the environment fail to do so, who shall?
Bob Brown was for many years the Green Senator from Tasmania. He was, and continues to be, one of the few great moral figures in Australian politics. He wrote about the Tarkine decision in the Sydney Morning Herald:
“To extract iron ore, Shree Minerals will cut a hole one kilometre long and deeper than sea level through the terrain. Never mind the fact that there are 16 threatened species at the site or that it is a state protected area. The next, bigger, project likely to get Burke’s nod is Venture Minerals’s proposed series of open pits for tin and iron ore through the lovely Mount Lindsay rainforest.
There are 57 more exploration licences on the go. So the area recommended for National Heritage status will instead end up looking like a lump of roaded Swiss cheese. As Christine Milne (Greens Senator from Tasmania) put it: ”Minister Burke’s decision to abandon the Tarkine to the mining industry is not only a disgrace, it’s a crime against the environment.”
The decision is terrible for Devils, too. They will be okay in captivity, but will they ever be able to go home?
The cancer in the Devils is mirrored by a cancer in the politics of the nation. It is a social disease that erupts into voracious consumption of ecosystem health and stability, and violently destroys life, ecological integrity and beauty.
September 7 is Threatened Species Day in Australia. It commemorates the day in 1936 when the last Tasmanian tiger known in the world died in the Hobart Zoo. Tasmanian tigers had been vilified by Anglo-Celtic settlers, and hunted to extinction. The day is an annual reminder that Australia has the highest rate of mammalian extinctions in the world, and might be thought of as a ‘lest we forget’ kind of day. It is an annual wake-up call to the fact that many Australian species are already extinct, and many more are vulnerable to extinction.
This year Threatened Species Day is also the day Australians go to the polls in a national election. What if members of threatened species actually had a say in human elections? Wouldn’t Devils vote to go home again?