Monthly Archives: May 2016

Hope is the Way of the World

‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’. I had thought it was another great Shakespeare quote, but it turns out to come from Alexander Pope. I have experienced this, almost everyone has. Often there seems to be no particular reason for it. Nor is there any privileged species. Unexpectedly, pervasively, hope bubbles up all over the place. Hope is life’s desire for more life. It is the loom on which fabric of life is woven.

baby birds

Hope is connected to the fact that the arrow of time only moves in one direction, at least for us. This may not be the case for certain sub-atomic entities (if that’s the right word), but for all of us macro-creatures, time is a one-way process. No one knows what the future holds, exactly. Everyone has to act on their best judgement. We humans have ethics and principles to guide us, and we can make thoughtful projections, but there’s always uncertainty. Such is life – risky. Every new life is an embodiment of hope.

I was twice drawn to think about hope recently. In both cases the context was extinction. First came the report that the Federal Government has placed forty-nine more species on the threatened species list. Included in this reassessment is the up-grading of a number of species to ‘critically endangered’. The primary cause of all this peril is land clearing. As is well known, land clearing has been part of Australian settler culture right from the beginning. For some people, clearing has become densely entangled with their sense of personal freedom to the point where it seems that the greater good has no claim upon them. The ‘right’ to eradicate biotic communities is spurious of course; there is no such inalienable right. Indeed, there are many excellent reasons why flourishing ecosystems should not be transformed into narcissistic mirrors of human supremacy.

Swift parrot in Canberra, Leo (CC)
Swift parrot in Canberra, Leo (CC)

The larger issue is that the language of individual rights provides a mask for industrial plunder. And in a powerful twist of narcissistic thinking, industries like forestry and coal represent themselves as if the greater good has no claim on them because they already encompass it.

Just at the moment  the case of the swift parrot looms large. Habitat for this critically endangered bird has been and continues to be under threat from clearing on the mainland and from forestry in critical breeding areas in Tasmania. These parrots nest in tree hollows, and it takes a hundred years at the least for deep hollows to form. The recovery plan for this marvellous bird does not actually specify the extent to which its habitat must be protected.

Forestry Tasmania, Cowirrie (CC)
Forestry Tasmania, Cowirrie (CC)

This is just one example among very many, and it shows a wilful, heart-breaking, infuriating lack of action by government. A recent report co-authored by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Birdlife Australia, and Environmental Justice Australia found that ‘successive governments have avoided their responsibility to protect threatened species habitat and have instead entrenched the process of extinction.

The authors make the important point that while governments are shirking their responsibilities, the situation by no means impossible. Actually, ‘… extinction is far from inevitable for the vast majority of threatened species in Australia. Extinction is the result of the decisions made by successive governments to ignore their own scientific advisers, and to neglect their obligation under our environmental laws to protect the ongoing evolution of life on the Australian continent.’

Swift parrot, Tasmania, Lizardstomp (CC)
Swift parrot, Tasmania, Lizardstomp (CC)

It is tempting to launch into a rave about the pathetic state of politics in most of the world today, but I think we all know this. Frustration is widespread, and its causes are well understood. The current state of political inaction induces a sense of hopelessness in the face of both the terrible injustices inflicted in social and ecological spheres and the politicians’ refusal to fulfil the democratic contract.

Let’s go back to swift parrots (Lathamus discolor). Parrots are an ancient family. They originated in here in Australia. Tim Low invites us to think of Cretaceous forests with ‘birds flitting past dinosaurs to lap at scarlet and orange sprays’ of flowers. Swift parrots are ‘rich patch nomads’; they roam widely in search of sugar ‘hot spots’, and they are great pollinators. They live mutualistically with the ‘bird-adapted’ trees of Australia which they pollinate. They are intelligent creatures with extensive repertoires of communication and play; for millennia they were the most intelligent species on Earth. In case you were wondering, birds experience pain and misery.

The long history of parrots and trees in Australia is not just a matter of chance. Parrots nurture and teach their young. Their continuity is an intergenerational achievement. Thom van Dooren writes: ‘Approached with attentiveness to evolutionary history and a focus on the complex and difficult emergence of each new generation, it is clear that this thing we call a “species” is an incredible achievement.’ He is inviting us to recognise and appreciate ‘the immensity of … intergenerational work: the skill, commitment, cooperation, and hard work, alongside serendipity,’ that go into the succession of generations.

Thinking up-close with swift parrots, and trees, and indeed with many living creatures, calls us to remember that every loss of a new generation, every future that is extinguished, is an act of brutality that destroys hope. Not mine, or yours, necessarily, but the hopes of others.

Corellas in tree hollow, Francisco Martins (CC)
Corellas in tree hollow, Francisco Martins (CC)

This brings me to my second stimulus in thinking about hope. Last week I was asked to participate in a forum in New York on the question of ‘Hope in a Time of Extinction’. I decided not to Skype in; I am definitely not at my best at two in the morning. Instead, I wrote a short piece to share with the group. With a few amendments, here is my offering:

~~~

I couldn’t have it imagined it – couldn’t have imagined when I was a child that there would come a day when I would think and write about extinction because I was living in a time when much of what I loved in the world was being trashed. We live with the unimaginable, and for writers there are many pitfalls. Some people have from time to time dealt with trying to write about the unimaginable by stretching language to try to force it beyond itself. Often the result is fairly incomprehensible. In our time we need a wide net of fully comprehensible words, but then we hit temptations in the form of trying to make big issues smaller. I am thinking, for example, of the temptation to make it easy (how to save the planet in ten easy steps); to naturalise issues (there have been other extinctions, nature survives); to count and quibble (we have lots of DNA kept safe for the future); to produce justifications (there are cures for cancer out there that we haven’t discovered yet); to engage in triage (we can’t save everything, bad luck for the ones that aren’t cute); the list goes on.

Worst of all, though, is the temptation to give up and say nothing. When I think of silence I think (inevitably) of Emmanuel Levinas and his great words about how we are called into ethics by others. He said: ‘the face is the other before death, looking through and exposing death. … [T]he face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death. Thus the face says to me: “you shall not kill”’.

These words strike right to the heart of hope and love in this time of extinction.  The call ’do not abandon’ is precisely where we are today in relation to all the species at the edge of the abyss. And Levinas adds the terrible reminder that to abandon others is as if to become an accomplice in death.

Flying-fox orphan, Paislie Hadley (CC)
Flying-fox orphan, Paislie Hadley (CC)

We are asked to consider the possibility that a great deal of death is going to happen without our being able to do enough. And probably all that we do can never be enough within the parameters of this massive deathscape. And still we are called. This ethical call is in the present, and it is not necessarily about changing the future. ’Do not abandon’: do not kill the hope in the eyes of those who suffer and those who are dying, and those who are at the edge.

To such encounters we humans bring a hope that is refined by focussing on the present. I learned a lot about this kind of intersubjective, ethical practice in the research I have been carrying out with wildlife volunteers. Consider the people who work with critically endangered monk seals in Hawai’i.  Most of them were deeply dedicated; they loved the work they did, loved the monk seals they protected, and loved the beaches where their lives and monk seals’ lives intersected. They were well aware that monk seals are the most critically endangered marine mammal and that the prognosis for survival is not good.

Monk seal, protected at Waikiki Beach
Monk seal, protected at Waikiki Beach

And yet for the most part they refused to explain their commitment in terms of probabilities. They did not do calculations; there was no cost-benefit analysis; there was no pivot by which species survival became the measure of the meaningfulness of action today. In fact, they rarely talked about the future. No, they were out there every day patrolling the beaches and, as necessary, protecting monk seals because they understood how risky life has become for them, and they would not stand by and do nothing.

This is not a warm or cozy image of hope; I am drawn to the indomitable strength of it. I admired the volunteers for their refusal to treat monk seals as if they were objects of management. Or as if they were in any way pathetic. In my words (not theirs), they refused to abandon monk seals as subjects in their own right by objectifying or babying them. Most of all, the volunteers showed a way into multispecies hope.

Humans set aside their own hopes, and worked to honour the hopefulness of others.

One final thing: along with hope, perhaps it is good in this time of extinction to think of something along the lines of moral support. It will almost certainly be the case that much of what we do as activists will not succeed in turning around the extinction cascades now in process. Too much has happened, and the human situation is not good either. The greedy, powerful, destructive, devourers of Earth are very much on the rampage.

Monk seal mum and pup, Kaua'i
Monk seal mum and pup, Kaua’i

Moral support: perhaps this is what hope is when it is shared in multispecies contexts. It supports the very possibility of hopefulness. And hope is here, all around us. Creatures want to live. The Earth itself wants life, wants diversity, wants synergies, symbioses, mutualisms, energy flows. It is all risky. Hope is the way of Earth.

Every moment in which we refuse to abandon others, and refuse to bow down to power, and refuse to speak the language of cost-benefit in the context of mass-death, every such moment is an alignment with the force and power of Earth’s desire for diversity, its hopefulness. We are not alone.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016

 

Resources:

I drew on research in the U.S. because I was addressing an audience in New York. Similar things could be said about volunteers here in Australia, and I will soon be taking up analysis of some of their excellent work.

The report discussed in this essay is: ‘Recovery Planning: Restoring Life to our threatened species’, Authored by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Birdlife Australia, and Environmental Justice Australia (read here). Information on the government’s recent listing of endangered species comes from The Guardian (read here).

The quotes and other information from Tim Low are taken from his excellent book Where Song Began. Quotes from my friend and colleague Thom van Dooren come from Flight Ways, a wonderful recent book on extinctions and ethics. To learn more about Thom’s fascinating work, visit his website.

Land clearing comes up regularly in these essays, see for example ‘So Many Faces’.

The Levinas quote is from the book Face to Face with Levinas, edited by Richard Cohen.

Thanks to the Left Forum for inviting me to participate on the subject of Hope in a Time of Extinction.

The Rich Are Revolting

Stung! It’s a fascinating book about jellyfish by Lisa-ann Gershwin. Having read Seasick a few years ago, I was well aware that life in Earth’s oceans and seas is suffering deeply. Stung! is nevertheless a shocker – the human feeding frenzy, along with our wilful disregard of marine well-being, is turning this great source of life into a deathzone. With one big exception.

Jellyfish, Yu-Chan Chen (CC)
Jellyfish, Yu-Chan Chen (CC)

Beautiful, dangerous, prolific, and astonishingly ‘agile’ in the opportunistic sense beloved of politicians, jellyfish are thriving. Many are lethal, and they are everywhere. Here in Australia we are familiar with some of the deadliest. We share the water with wildly toxic box jellyfish, including the ghastly Irukandji whose sting leaves its victims begging to be put out of their pain and terror. And of course there are Portuguese men o’ war, including the small bluebottles that wash up on beaches in our area here in NSW. When I lived in Darwin I regretted the twist of fate that brought stingers to the coastal waters just in those months when the weather was hottest and we most wanted to swim.

At least we humans have a choice about whether to go for a dip or stay ashore. Fish aren’t so lucky. Consider the case of a fish farm in New Zealand. Gershwin describes an event that took place in 1998 and is paradigmatic of similar events all over the world. The fish cages are circular, the fish swim around and around, and they create a vortex. Jellyfish drift, and are sucked in. In this case, a swarm of Aurelia jellies drifted into a bay and got sucked up against the cage and trapped in the mesh. They struggled; what entered the cage was mucus laced with stinging cells. Salmon inhaled the mucus and it stung them as well as blocking their gills. They were frightened and in pain. They suffocated. The more they struggled the quicker they died, which may have been a mercy. About 56,000 salmon, weighing about 3 kilos each, died in about half an hour.

Aurelia, Brian Honohan (CC)
Aurelia, Brian Honohan (CC)

Jellyfish go with the flow. Give them a nice current like the intake pipes for a nuclear power plant and they float in by the millions. The Madras Atomic Power Station in India is not unusual: there have been numerous shut-downs owing to jellyfish clogging the cooling system. Staff learned that there were 4 million jellies over a 15-month period. In 1995-6 the plant was coping with 18 tons of jellies per month. Similar events are taking place all over the world.

There is something awesome about such ancient creatures disrupting technology that is so recent, as my friend the philosopher Michelle Bastian has pointed out. Research is beginning to tell us how they manage to be doing so well even as so many ocean creatures are on the edge of extinction. Not all jelly species are increasers, and not all the increasers are thriving everywhere, but the overall picture is one of massive expansion. The damage humans are inflicting on the oceans and seas turns out to be a fine thing for jellyfish.

Irukandji, Rob Williams (CC)
Irukandji, Rob Williams (CC)

Gershwin tells us that jellyfish, in all their beauty and lethality, are weeds. She defines this unexpected term in a technical way. Weeds are not just living things that thrive in places where humans don’t want them, like the prickly asparagus fern I’m always uprooting in my garden. Characteristically, weeds are versatile opportunists. They are generalists in their consumption and tolerant of a broad range of ecological conditions. They are prolific, they disperse readily, and they resist eradication. Perhaps most importantly, they thrive in disturbed habitats. In Gershwin’s words, ‘when ecosystems wobble, weeds flourish’.

As I read this description I started to shiver. There could hardly be a more perfect description of the human species.

This is us: we are generalists and opportunists. We have dispersed rapidly, we live almost everywhere and we thrive in disruption. There are two big differences between the human and jellyfish weedy ways of life. The first concerns reproductive strategies. Very briefly, there are two main types: scientists refer to them as the r and K selection strategies. One involves large parental investment and few offspring (K), the other involves large numbers of offspring and little parental investment (r). We humans are a K-selected species; jellyfish are r-selected. Human women bear one, sometimes two, children at a time. It takes years to bring an individual to maturity, nurturing, socialising and educating them. In crazy contrast, jellyfish have several modes of reproduction; they are able to hold their future offspring until conditions are right, and then release thousands or millions in a new start-up ‘bloom’.

It might be thought that K-selected species would be at a disadvantage given that their reproductive rate is relatively slow; in general they require relatively stable ecosystems. We humans are among the equilibrium-adapted species, but many of us also go for disturbance. We make up for loss of stability by our intelligence. More specifically, we have become very good at both creating disturbances which favour our opportunistic lifeway, and evading the consequences by shifting them elsewhere.

Others suffer, while we flourish, and we have systems that work to keep it that way.

Consider two recent events here in New South Wales. According to The Guardian, ‘nearly 50 new species of flora and fauna have been added without fanfare to the federal government’s list of threatened species, including nine that are critically endangered.’ Among them are mammals, lizards, birds and plants. No new funding is available to help them survive. The main cause is habitat destruction. We humans are increasing both our numbers and our patterns of consumption. Animals, plants and ecosystems suffer. At the same time, NSW is planning to abandon its legislation against land clearing. We keep ignoring connectivities, and favouring ourselves at the expense of others.

Threatened: Greater glider, David Cook (CC)
Threatened: Greater glider, David Cook (CC)

One of my favourite thinkers is the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. He is an old man now, and while his writing sometimes seems a bit rambly, he hits the nail on the head with every book. Recently, in Moral Blindness, he turns his attention to the latest up-grade in the power of greed. He writes of the contemporary loss of moral sensibilities, and of ‘the revolt of the rich against the poor’. This revolt is generally thought to have been given a strong boost in the Regan and Thatcher eras when politicians vigorously thrashed the social contract. Their justification had a moral tenor, so let’s be clear: the hard-won laws and policies that provide safety nets for humans and protections for nonhumans are not acts of charity; they do not steal from the rich. Rather, they involve a vision of shared and mutual well-being. An ecological understanding of this vision reveals connectivities, mutualism, and the fundamental ecological fact that ‘what goes around comes around’. Laws and policies of protection promote the circulation of goods and services with the aim of shared social and environmental good. The underlying premise – that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – accords value to all.

The revolt of the rich has been accomplished by disrupting this social ecology. They claim that a social unit is a mere sum of individuals, and that social relations involve parasites and hosts. There is no circulation: it is all take, take, take. There is no social good; there is just the self-interest of hosts who want to scrape off pesky encumbrances.

This revolt is part of Bauman’s broader analysis of western modernity in which he makes it clear that our species is very diverse; not all people in all times have lived out the practices of destruction that are so powerful today. In his book Wasted Lives Bauman writes about the will to wealth of modern capitalism, with all its excess, redundancy and waste. He notes the practice of declaring everything that can’t be used for wealth to be disposable (‘collateral casualties’). From mining to high finance and beyond, anything that gets in the way (read humans; read plants, animals, ecosystems) is best discarded. The revolt denies any moral connection between consumption and waste, and self-righteously rejects constraints on making waste.

'Plastic ocean', Kevin Krejci (CC)
‘Plastic ocean’, Kevin Krejci (CC)

It helps to pause, to take note of the fact that we are trying to imagine the unimaginable. Waste: the oceans and seas, their capacity to sequester carbon and to produce oxygen, their capacity to support webs of life that are diverse, and their regulation of Earth’s chemistry; the atmosphere, the climate, the capacity of Earth to sustain a steady state conducive to life. All this – the very foundations of both marine and terrestrial life – all this is treated as stuff to be wasted. Wreckage creates ‘disturbances’, to use the ecological term, and almost all of us humans are being dragged along in the wake even though most of know that wreckage is neither right nor good, neither smart nor sustainable.

Entangled sperm whale, Lauren Packard (CC)
Entangled sperm whale, Lauren Packard (CC)

This brings me back to jellyfish. They thrive with disturbance, and they consume voraciously. Most creatures consume ‘down the food chain’. In general, big things eat smaller things, fast things eat slower things, and smart things eat dumber things, according to Gershwin’s non-technical explanation. But consider this strange fact: jellyfish actually eat ‘up the food chain’. In Gershwin’s words, ‘small jellyfish eat big species of clams and crabs…. Slow jellyfish eat fast species of fish and squids. Jellyfish with no brains eat species of snails and crustaceans and fish with brains.’ They eat, and they out-compete. They do this primarily because they eat the larval stages of other creatures. In fact, they take over whole ecosystems, eliminating the competition and becoming top predators. They eat each other, too, so they can keep on eating long after having eliminated almost everything else. Jellyfish are also capable of de-growth. When the going gets tough they shrink and cut back on consumption.

If jellyfish could have designed a disturbance agent to make life better for themselves and worse for others, they might well have come up with humans. We’re doing a great job of making life good for them, and together, as if in collusion, we’re accelerating irreversible changes. When jellyfish take over a destabilised ecosystem, a formerly diverse body of water ‘flips’ to jellyfish domination. As other species become extinct, it becomes less likely that flips can be reversed.

Jellyfish, Doug Letterman (CC)
Jellyfish, Doug Letterman (CC)

We are a young species, only about 100,000 years old. We’ve been hugely destructive, and we’ve shifted massive amounts of suffering elsewhere. We’ve thus far managed to evade the consequences of the fact that we really aren’t very flexible. We don’t do de-growth. We need exact levels of oxygen; we need fresh, clean water and fresh, clean food and fresh, clean air. We need care and compassion.

But jellyfish – they can handle almost anything. Salty water and fresh water –  most of them are pretty adaptable. In the ocean’s dead zones where the water lacks oxygen, jellyfish manage. They handle radioactive waste, heavy metals and all the other terrible pollutants dumped or leaked into the oceans. Climate change, another great disruptor, seems to be enhancing their life prospects.

Jellyfish have been on Earth for at least 565 million years. They’ve survived all five of the great extinctions that Earth has thus far experienced. They’ve outlived the dinosaurs and many others. It looks like they’ll survive the coming extinction as well. This time round they have a bit of help from their friends; the revolting disruptors are definitely good news for jellies.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016

Resources:

Lisa-ann Gershwin: Stung!  Alanna Mitchell: Seasick.  Zugmunt Bauman: Moral Blindness and Wasted Lives.

I first learned about some of the amazing facts of jellyfish life from Michelle Bastian. Her article is in press. In the meantime, her website is an interesting place to visit.

For another look at reproductive strategies see my essay ‘Thinking Like a Mantis’.

The article about threatened species that I consulted is in The Guardian (here).

There is a rich literature on the social contract. I am using the term in a non-specialised way, following Bauman, to indicate the general idea that humans give up some freedom as members of society, and that in return they gain some protections. When the rich revolt against the poor they are basically saying that protection will no longer be part of the deal. (‘The age of entitlement is over’ is a classic, recent expression of this descent into willful moral blindness.)

Crypto-Creatures

This is a wonderful moment: there actually is some good news to report! An animal that was feared to have gone extinct has been located. Not just an individual, but a whole group, alive and well in the bush.

Let me back track, briefly. A few years ago I had a chat with the film maker Robert Nugent, and he told me that he was starting on a new project focussing on the Australian night parrot. He explained that this elusive nocturnal parrot might be extinct, but that there were unconfirmed reports of a living group. I wondered how he would film a bird that is active only at night, and that in any case hasn’t been seen for sure in a very long time; I marvelled at the ingenuity of the creative drive. Those cryptic birds  haunted my imagination and I began to envision them as mysterious and rather glorious mythical beings.

Imaginary parrot
Imaginary parrot

Yesterday I consulted my bird books and found a more prosaic story. The night parrot, Pezoporus occidentalis, is related to the ground parrots (Pezoporus wallicus). There are two main types of ground parrots, eastern and western. My area is home to the eastern variant. I have seen them every once in a while, and although one book describes them as ‘dumpy’, I find them lovely even though they are neither slim nor showy. They are listed as vulnerable to extinction. The night parrot looks pretty much the same and is far more endangered.

The ominous account in the bird books reads: ‘Recent specimen (1990) found dead beside highway near Boulia, Queensland’.

Night parrot (CC)
Ground parrot (CC)

Now Bush Heritage has announced that a group of night parrots has been located. What is more, they are being protected in situ. The Bush Heritage conservation organisation was started by Bob Brown, our great moral leader. He and a few others conceived the idea of generating a fund with which to buy properties with high conservation value and dedicating them to regeneration (if needed) and protection. The reason was simple: if we waited for governments to take the lead in conservation we would lose too much. Community action was necessary. Bush Heritage is supported by donors and has been going for 25 years. It now owns millions of hectares of land.

The night parrot site involved agreements with the local land owner and the Queensland government to acquire a sizeable block of land. The on-going work of conservation involves liaising with local landowners and with the local Maiawali people. The new property is called Pullen Pullen to honour the local Indigenous name for the bird. It’s location is being kept secret. The birds were important figures in Maiawali culture. Mr Darryl Lyons explained that his people  ‘were known in their main corroboree as the rainmakers and were often summonsed by neighbouring tribes to go to their areas to do the rain dance and the ceremonial dress of that corroboree had the Pullen Pullen feathers in it.’

Night parrots were once widespread across arid Australia. They are ground dwellers in spinifex and samphire country. It is possible that they are able to gain all the water they need from Sclerolaena plants (which also produce edible seeds) and therefore do not require direct water sources. It now seems probable that one big factor in the decline of night parrots was the cessation of Aboriginal burning. Spinifex burning is well documented; it was organised to create patches. The effects ensure that there is spinifex at various stages of growth, that there are lots of patchy edges, and that the incidence of catastrophic fires is reduced.

Spinifex country
Spinifex country

The ornithologist Steve Murphy is in charge of researching and organising protection for the night parrots. He says there is one main threat aside from humans: feral cats. At any time they could knock off the whole population. According to one news report, there are dingoes in the area, and that is probably why the feral cat population is low. No one wants to take risks, however.

I am captivated by the story of Maggie, a one-year-old collie who has been trained to smell and track feral cats. Her human companions, Mark and Glenys Woods take her out early in the morning, and she patrols the area sniffing for cats. Mark Woods explained: ‘Maggie’s sense of smell is so highly developed she can distinguish a feral cat from a domestic cat. This incredible ability makes them one of the most effective tools in managing and eliminating feral cat populations.’ When she scents a cat or a den she sits and waits. That is the extent of her job.

According to the reports, along with relying on dingoes and on Maggie, an alternative mode of control is being used. It is a mechanical device called a ‘grooming trap’, designed to be triggered only by cats. When triggered, it shoots out 1080 poison. The idea is that cats will lick off the poison and die. This device inflicts a terrible death; creatures who ingest 1080 suffer horribly.

Feral cats are the subject of a huge campaign designed to try to limit their numbers. A key element in the campaign is the demonisation of cats. This tends to obscure the fact that many of the causes of death of native animals, particularly birds, are generated by humans. A Bush Heritage publication on ‘Land Clearing and its Impacts’, tells us that Australia is still clearing way too many trees, and that clearing affects not only the trees themselves but also other creatures who live in and among trees, including those who inhabit the understory. This report does not pull its punches:

‘Over 5 million parrots, honeyeaters, robins and other land birds are killed each year by land clearing….

‘For every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress. Half of Australia’s terrestrial bird species may become extinct this century unless habitat destruction is rapidly controlled.’ And yet, regulations against land clearing are being abandoned, while feral cats are targetted ever more severely.

The pest industry recently expanded its empire when a gathering of Environment Ministers (in July 2015) endorsed the National declaration of feral cats as pests . This meant that they would ‘review arrangements within their respective jurisdictions and, where necessary, to remove unnecessary barriers to effective and humane control of feral cats’. The site explaining feral cat issues includes details of new methods of using 1080 for cat killing. The short translation of this obscure pronouncement is that the 1080 deathscape expands again.

Information mural, Alice Springs Desert Park, Kaye Kessing
Information mural, Alice Springs Desert Park, Kaye Kessing (artist)

It is true that feral cats kill a lot of birds and other animals. It is also true that their populations become wildly out of sync when dingoes are killed. The relationship between cats and dingoes is one of those extinction cascades: the effort to kill dingoes opens the way for an over-abundance of cats, foxes, and rabbits. All three species multiply without check when their top predators are gone, and the impacts on native animal and plant species are disastrous.

Feral cat, NSW, by sunphlo (CC)
Feral cat, NSW, by sunphlo (CC)

I write regularly against the use of 1080. Poison is not an appropriate way to address conservation issues. A basic principle of compassionate conservation is that the conservation of one species ought not to be achieved by inflicting dreadful deaths on members of other species. I do not want to see conservation measures contribute to an industry dedicated to death. The pest industry promotes itself by vilifying other creatures; it spreads suffering around the country in the name of land management, and tries to make mass death look like responsible action. I will be writing to Bush Heritage to share my views on 1080. I donate to this organisation because I believe passionately in its aims; at the same time I do not want my money contributing to 1080 or similar poisons.

There are ways to get rid of cats at Pullen Pullen without all the suffering. The dingoes should thrive if the area is kept clear of 1080, and they will take care of the cats. And Maggie and her humans, Mark and Glenys Woods, are on the job. Their cross-species alliance is an ideal to be aimed for in all conservation.

I want to congratulate Bush Heritage for the large-scale in situ approach to conservation. The great merit of this approach is that it enables endangered species to continue their lives in the manner that has evolved for them to live well and happily. A further merit is that it enables humans to facilitate the work of the natural world, rather than disrupt it. It builds on the understanding that every life is an inter-species project, that we live within systems of connectivity. It sets out an ethical project for humans:

to work in alliance with existing systems.

This approach differs greatly from the anthropocentric engineering approach in which humans imagine themselves as the creators of a new and improved nature.

South-west Queensland
South-west Queensland

Alliances are the way life works sustainably. The night parrots are embedded in multiple alliances – with spinifex that gives them shelter and food, and with Sclerolaena that give them water and food. The Sclerolaena are terribly annoying to humans, especially barefoot humans; they are best known as prickles, burrs and bindyi. And yet for night parrots they are literal life-savers. These little birds have survived colonisation with its invasive humans, cattle, horses, and catastrophic fires (with the cessation of Aboriginal burning); they have survived many more disasters than I am aware of. Their resilience is their great asset. Our conservation efforts can enhance that resilience by removing feline predators and, as Bush Heritage is doing admirably, protecting them from human predators.

We will know more about these interspecies, biocultural alliances when we get to see Robert’s film. I’m told that ‘Night Parrot Stories’ will be shown in the Sydney Film Festival on 19 June. In the meantime:

Three cheers for the gorgeous cryptic survivors!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources:

Robert Nugent’s previous film on locusts is ‘Memoirs of a plague’.

Quote from bird book is from Simpson and Day, Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (sixth edition).

The Darryl Lyons quote is from a news report.

To learn more about Aboriginal burning in Central Australia, a good resource is Peter Latz’s book Bushfires and Bushtucker.

The Mark Woods quote is in ‘Bush Tracks’, the Bush Heritage quarterly magazine (Autumn 2016).

Bush Heritage Report on Land Clearing and its Impacts (view here).

To learn more about the ‘grooming trap’, visit here. On the meeting of ministers, visit here.

On Sclerolaena, see the info sheet on wildlife and native plants.

There are numerous essays on this site concerning 1080, the pest industry, and the role of dingoes as ecological regulators. On pests, see ‘How to Love a Pest‘.

The best article on killing and conservation is by Thom van Dooren and can be read online (here).