Tag Archives: Extinction

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.

Big Players

There’s a lot of talk about growing inequality, and often we’re confronted with the idea that this is all just natural. Shakespeare said it best, as usual. In Pericles:

Third Fisherman: Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.

First Fisherman: Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones; I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale; a’ plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful.

Killer Whale, Matthew Allen (CC)
Killer Whale, Matthew Allen (CC)

Recently I read Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money, the new book about the Koch brothers. It offers a sober view into the lives and deeds of men of incredible greed and selfishness; men with a totalising determination to treat the whole world – social, environmental, cultural – as a standing reserve which they and their billionaire cronies can devour or discard at will. They are completely unlike whales. Their impacts are disastrous. The Koch brothers are living proof that evil is indeed alive and well, and that it plays nauseating games with U.S. and world politics.

Here in Australia, too, we are enmeshed in systems in which big fish, the wealthy bullies, rise to the top. We are witnessing the abject failure of many key politicians to take action on the urgent environmental and social justice issues that matter for the future of life on Earth. And so I am all the more grateful for the strong moral leaders we do have. Phillip Adams hosted a great panel recently with three articulate, passionate men: Bob Brown, Julian Burnside and Kerry O’Brien. Bob Brown was for many years the leader of the Greens Party in Australia; while guiding one of the west’s first and most successful Greens parties, he became, and is today, an inspiration to the nation and the world. He is breath-takingly honest, and in this recent panel discussion he excoriated the system of powerful lobbyists, describing many current politicians as ‘venal, strong, aggressive people who do what the big money wants them to do’.

Marionettes, Priit Tammets (CC)
Marionettes, Priit Tammets (CC)

Big money, big players, big politics: it all seems to fit, and from a tooth-and-claw vision of the world around us, it could all seem perfectly natural. Recent studies in ecology tell quite a different story, though. Outside the toxic domain of human avarice, living beings are inter-entangled in fascinatingly functional ecological circuits.

Take wolves, for example. There is a perception that wolves and other top predators will have a detrimental impact on other species by the very fact of their food consumption. Recent research, however, is showing a far more interesting story of direct and indirect impacts that work their way through an ecosystem in flows (trophic cascades) that are extremely beneficial.

Wolf in Yellowstone, Oregon State University (CC)
Wolf in Yellowstone, Oregon State University (CC)

Top order predators like wolves are key ecological regulators. The effects of their predation are felt all through the system among other animals, plants, and even land forms. The most accessible study concerns wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Here the re-introduction of wolves impacted first to regulate numerous animal populations, including elk. As the elk were forced to move into marginal areas where they were less exposed to wolves, the river vegetation was able to regenerate. As erosion lessened, the rivers stabilised, and species like beavers and birds were able to return. Beavers are notable for altering river flow to produce a diversity of habitats that are beneficial to many species of mammals, fish, and birds. And so it went. The wolves were few in number; they regulate themselves as well as others, and the whole system was changed in the direction of greater functionality.

These top predators brought about trophic cascades of diversity and stability.

Yellowstone by HikrChick (CC)
Yellowstone by HikrChick (CC)

Top predators are keystone species: the term concerns relationality and connectivity. A keystone species is one with a greater impact on its ecological community than would be expected given its abundance. Across the deep time of ecological relations these impacts have become mostly beneficial. All top predators are keystone species, but not all keystone species are top predators. This is to say that there are many keystone species whose impacts are large, but who are not big charismatic carnivores like wolves or killer whales.

The wonderfully insightful scientist Stephan Harding explains: ‘You never know who the big players are in the wild world.’

Dung Beetle, by Camilo Hdo (CC)
Dung Beetle, by Camilo Hdo (CC)

Harding gives the example of dung beetles in the Amazon forest. These seemingly insignificant creatures are critically significant for the whole forest. Before, when there was greater functionality, they killed off parasites, buried seeds, and facilitated quick and efficient recycling of nutrients. In forest fragments, where the connectivities are coming apart, there is less dung because there are fewer animals. Less dung means fewer dung beetles (fewer in number and fewer in species). There have been extinctions, and the reasons include lack of good quality mates, lack of good quality habitat, and changing micro-climates. The result is that remaining forest fragments are losing their ecological health: more diseases, fewer nutrients, seeds unable to germinate. Harding concludes: ‘Seemingly insignificant, the dung beetles of the Amazon are major players in their ecological community.’ One loss leads to another, leading to more: this is the downward spiral, the loss of vitality, the extinction cascade. It  is happening all over the world.

Amazon forest by Dams999 (CC)
Amazon forest , Dams999 (CC)

Among the many lessons to be gained from thinking with dung beetles, consider this: to see any living being is to know that there is a story involving others, and that behind them are still more stories. To see the luminous beauty of a forest is to see the work of many others, including insects. Indeed, every vibrant living being and biotic community is enmeshed in looping, entangled benefits, in cascades of flowing life. From a keystone point of view, many big players may barely be visible in themselves, and are best seen through the lens of the wider community whose health tells of their activity.

Australians will soon be heading into a federal election, and the U.S. will have one next year. I would love to walk into the polling booth and cast my vote for dung beetles. I am, of course, attracted to the metaphorical dimension of this fantasy. There is an awful lot of shit in political life, more than enough for an army of insect removalists.

Dung beetle 'debate', Jochen Smolka (CC)
Dung beetle ‘debate’, Jochen Smolka (CC)

More seriously, though, I would vote for beetles because I would love to vote for forests. Indeed, each biotic community has its species and relationships: I would love to vote for the giant triton snails that eat the crown-of-thorns starfish that damage the Great Barrier Reef; I would love to vote for those great Australian regulators, the dingoes; really, I would love to vote in any and every way for the future of life on Earth. Good votes, like good ecological actions, are complex, as Aldo Leopold told us long ago: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’

There are a lot of bullies who think they’re big players, and they are very good at what they do, which is to wreck things. They have packed huge amounts of destruction into a very short time frame. They are spatially expansive: the cascades of destruction go everywhere. And yet the truth of deep ecological time remains: the wild world is greater than politics, and the big keystone players are doing their best to keep Earth vibrant and dynamic. Long may they live!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources:

The quote from Pericles is found online (here).

Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Meyer can be read online (here).

Philip Adams on Radio National, Late Night Live, ‘Advance Australia Where?’ (listen here).

The quote from Stephen Harding is in his article: ‘Gaia and Biodiversity’ in Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion, and Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis. E. Crist and H. B. Rinker.

For more on top order predators, see the excellent article by Ripple and colleagues (view here). I discussed some of these issue in earlier essays relating to Australian dingoes, for example, ‘Partnership ‘Rewilding with Dingoes’ (visit here). The Yellowstone video, ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’, is terrific (view here). For more on dingoes as top predators, see the essay ‘Apologising to Dingoes’ (view here).

To watch a giant triton snail eating a crown-of-thorns starfish, view here.

Give Whales A Chance

We have been short on good news lately, and for that reason, too, it was absolutely wonderful to learn that the International Court of Justice has upheld Australia’s bid to ban Japan’s Antarctic whaling program. It was equally wonderful to hear that Japan intends to abide by the decision.

Whale fluke, by Michael Dawes (CC)
Whale fluke, by Michael Dawes (CC)

The best part of the news, of course, is what it means for whales. I have been reading Philip Hoare’s book The Whale, and the story it tells is so utterly appalling that it is difficult to believe that any fair-minded person could assent to the on-going killing of these great songsters. I starting reading after meeting Philip at the recent conference ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’. He gave a marvellous speech, and the video is now online (view here).

I had no idea that more whales have been killed in my lifetime than were killed in all the decades during which ‘Moby Dick’-style whaling wreaked its havoc. According to Philip, in 1951 alone ‘more whales were killed worldwide than New Bedford’s whale-ships took in a century and a half of whaling’. The reasons are primarily technological, along with a continuing desire for whale bodies. The invention of harpoon guns armed with a bomb that would explode inside the animal’s head was the great leap forward in slaughter. From that time on, with faster ships, more lethal weapons, and, as the years went by, more sophisticated tracking devices and gigantic factory ships, the whales never stood a chance. In Philip’s words: ‘A whale once seen was as good as dead.’

Whales, by Tim Taylor (CC)
Whales, by Tim Taylor (CC)

Whales and men were both fodder for world wars, not least because whale oil was used in the manufacture of nitro-glycerine. Philip writes that ‘the entire population of humpbacks in the South Atlantic were driven to extinction by 1918′. The second world war also involved massive whale slaughter, and after the war whale meat and oil were used to feed protein-hungry populations in war-torn countries.

Efforts to limit and ban whale slaughter have been episodic, and each success has been a struggle. There has been a great deal of ideology in the mix, as my courageous friend Kumi Kato explains. Kumi is a Japanese scholar, and has been documenting traditional whaling practices. She contrasts them with commercial whaling, the point being that while there was a tradition of hunting, it was not the same as contemporary slaughter.

Traditionally, she shows, small-scale community hunting of whales and other cetaceans was carried out with the greatest respect. A whale death was treated like a human death, and a commemorative plaque was hung in the temple. There, Buddhist nuns sang daily prayers for all the whales and others who had been killed. Kumi considers that whaling traditionally involved ethics and spiritualty, along with a strong sense of reciprocity. Hunters and their communities recognised human dependence on the lives of others.

Some of these elderly women are still singing cetacean prayers. I have had the privilege of hearing Kumi’s recordings, and gratitude for those dedicated and loving women has filled my heart.

Thank You, Dear Nuns, For Your Prayerful Commitment!

Journalists have been asking politicians whether Japanese people will be angered by the decision to stop the killing. The answer seemed to be that the majority doesn’t care, and that some will dislike the ruling while others will be glad for it. It is good to remember that there is more going on here than just opinion. The temples still hold memories, the nuns still sing, and today whales in the southern ocean are that bit safer than they have been previously.

This is a great moment to applaud Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace for all they have done to prevent whale slaughter and to keep the issue in public sight.

Thank You, Dear Activists!

Now, let us not forget about the myriad  other assaults on whales and other sea creatures. Not only the killing, but the sonic impacts, and the toxins, and the entanglements, and a thousand other hazards of life in the deep blue sea.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Humpback Whale, by  Andrew Schaefer (CC)
Humpback Whale, by Andrew Schaefer (CC)

Resources

Philip Hoare writes prolifically about whales. I can testify at this moment that  The Whale is a great read.

Kumi Kato has written several articles on traditional whaling. One of them is ‘Prayers for the Whales’ (read here).

I have recently written several other essays on whales and other sea creatures. See: ‘What’s In A Whale?’, ‘Songsters’, and ‘Sharks in a Sea of Death’.

Sharks in a Sea of Death

Tiger shark, Albert Kok, Creative Commons
Tiger shark,
Albert Kok, Creative Commons

Every year, between 5 and 15 people are killed by sharks world wide. For their part, human beings kill more than 100 million sharks, world wide, every year. Three quarters of these deaths are due to commodity killing, particularly ‘finning’. This is the cruel practice of cutting the fin off the shark and, often, throwing the shark back into the ocean to die a lingering death as it is unable to swim properly. One quarter of the deaths are ‘by-catch’, meaning that they are the collateral damage of other fishing practices.

This is the context in which the  Western Australian government is ‘culling’ sharks, in spite of protests in WA and around the world. Let’s be clear: this means killing. The method is to set out baited hooks and wait for sharks to come and get caught. They are then killed (if not already dead), and the bodies are towed out to sea. Only three species are meant to be killed: great white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks. Only animals over two meters in length are meant to be killed. The great white shark is protected by both state and federal legislation as an endangered species. Already the hooks are catching individuals that are smaller than can be killed. There appears to be no monitoring of the effects of this method on the individuals of these beleaguered species.

Once again I am reminded of the zombie politics that seeks to display power through killing. The discourse may be managerial (a problem to be solved), but the underlying logic is not. Zombie politics seek power through the demonisation and death of unwanted others. Such politics, which should have died out centuries ago, remain with us even today  in this time when the rapid degradation of the ecological webs of life would inspire any thoughtful person to develop a politics of care. And yet, this politics of death-making seems to be thriving. It suppresses ethics and compassion, and  refuses to engage in a reasoned understanding of ecosystems. This is the politics that is driving so much of the damage that is unmaking planet earth today.

Our standard discourse often inadvertently feeds into the politics of death-making. In an earlier post, I objected to the idea that ‘both sides’ of every story should be told. My point was that every story has more than two sides. In that post, I offered eleven sides to the story of the cruel persecution of flying-foxes in Charters Towers, Queensland. There’s no fixed number. The significant point is that good ecological thought involves exploring numerous sides to any story. I came up with 13 sides to the current shark kill, and I am sure other people will be able to add more.

In contrast to ecological thinking, the decision to kill sharks is based on a simple oppositional binary: which is more important, the lives of humans or the lives of sharks? Politicians are of course saying the lives of humans are more important.

Almost everyone else, though, is refusing to play the binary game. They are saying it doesn’t have to be ‘either-or’. There are many ways to achieve co-existence, they are saying, and killing gets in the way of better solutions. These are people who are able to think with sharks, to see the commonalities of our creaturely lives rather than sliding into vilification and killing.

Interesting as these human sides of the story are, the issue is even more fascinating when ecological thinking starts outside and away from the noisy human sphere. Stories of ecological functioning are usually win-win at the level of populations. That is, big fish eat smaller fish, and so on through the food web, so that when systems are functioning well, populations benefit from the interactions. Sharks are top predators (also called apex predators). The only creature that regularly preys on them is the human.

Steve Garner, Flickr Creative Commons
Shark, Steve Garner,
Flickr Creative Commons

Here are thirteen sides to the  culling frenzy:

1) The sharks themselves. Those who die did not choose to die. Some will have died painful deaths, caught on hooks, and unable to free themselves. Others who were not meant to be targeted will also suffer, and some will die.

2) The species. While a species can’t be said to have a ‘perspective’, it does have a history, and unless extinction takes over, it has a future. That great lineage is not ours to destroy.

3) Turtles, dugongs and seagrass. As top predators sharks exert pressure on the ways in which turtles and dugongs graze on the seagrass. That pressure is good for the health of all three kinds of beings, as well as for sharks.

4) Coral reefs. In order for coral to continue to grow, algae has to be kept in check. Small herbivorous fish do this. Sharks have a positive effect on small fish by keeping in check the mid-size fish that feed on the small ones.

5) Bivalves (scallops, oysters, clams). This story is known in detail because it is happening along the east coast of the USA at this moment. The large sharks of this region have been so reduced in number that they are functionally extinct. The waves of disaster that follow from this functional extinction tell the terrible story of extinction cascades. Loss of sharks meant that certain other marine animal populations increased enormously. One creature is the ‘cownose ray’ which migrates up and down the coast eating scallops, clams and oysters. The scallop population has collapsed, and the scallop fishing industry is suffering. The rays are now expected to turn to clams and oysters.

6) The ocean itself. Bivalves are the ‘filtration system’ for the ocean, according to the Oceana report. Their decline means that ‘already stressed coastal areas could experience additional uncontrolled algal blooms and dead zones…’

Turning now to humans:

7) Activists. Most of these people also swim, surf and dive. They are turning out by the thousands, with support from around the world, to say that co-existence is possible.

8) The Aboriginal people of the Perth area. The Noongar people, led by their Elders, are taking a leading role in opposing the killing. Their long-term co-existence with sharks has involved cultural relationships which remain private.

9) Scientists who are carrying out research into shark life and behaviour. ABC Radio’s Bush Telegraph program on the shark issue gave space to marine neuroecologist Ryan Kempster. He drew on evidence from shark control around the world, and said that the best approach is to capture and tag sharks, and take them further out to sea. In this way the ‘problem’ is taken away, and the sharks can be monitored. Both science and surfers benefit by knowing more about sharks and by identifying individuals.

10) People concerned with the legal implications of these exemptions. The same radio program brought in Green MP Lynn MacLaren; she expressed concern about the legalities of the process, and indicated that legal challenges might be forthcoming, perhaps from the Environmental Defender’s Office. The bottom line is that state and federal legislation, most significantly the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, has as its main aim the protection of endangered species. It isn’t a luxury to be dispensed with whenever politicians decide on a bout of death-work.

11) Surfers themselves who oppose the killing. A particularly articulate statement was put forward by Jack Serong. He writes: ‘On average, 87 people drown at Australian beaches every year. These are preventable deaths. On average one person will die by shark attack in the same period. And it probably won’t be preventable. His conclusion:  ‘For the cost of a national shark cull, for the environmental damage it would do, how many sharks could we tag? How many kids could we teach to swim? How many more beaches could we patrol? This is the delicate dance of numbers, so easily skewed by fear.’

12) WA surfers who may support the killing. Kevin Merriman spoke on the Bush Telegraph program. He acknowledged the fact that surfing is risky, and described surfers as people who are at one with mother nature. He thought that human lives should take precedence over shark lives, but after hearing about the possibility of capture, tagging and removal, he acknowledged that it seemed like a reasonable option.

13) The WA government, led by premier Colin Barnett. As far as can be determined, Mr Barnett is unwilling to consider alternatives to killing. He managed the exemptions from the WA legislation that is supposed to protect the great white whale, and he asked for, and received, federal exemption, granted by the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt. The Minister, it may be noted, is making a name for himself as the honcho with the most destructive approach to the environment that Australia has ever known.

The most stunning thing about looking at so many sides of the story is that the proponents of killing are so few.

As I was considering the 13 sides to this story, I was struck by the  diversity not only of human sides but also of ways of expressing those sides. There have been inspiring photos, and there have been wretchedly vivid ones. There have been some wonderfully pointed comments as well.

This one particularly appealed to me:

LOTL Rescue
LOTL Rescue

Along with visual imagery, there are forms of writing that are more poetic and more personal. My friend Kim Satchell is a poet, philosopher, teacher, and life-long surfer. I asked him if he had any poetry on surfing and sharks, and he sent me this poetic essay:

Terror Australis

There is an eerie calm that accompanies the murky Saturday afternoon—the brown sea is a jumbled mess. An onshore wind is ripping the surface to shreds. Little waves fall apart on the shore. While news of a nearby shark attack spreads a contagion of fear and anxiety. Each person who knows, seems compelled to tell someone else. I am checking the surf and a man I know drives up, winds down his window and blurts out the gruesome facts, relieving himself in auto-absolution. The radio and television get in on the act, by Sunday morning its front page headlines and photographs in both papers. The death is brutal, a young body-boarder’s legs torn from him, bleeds toward death, while his mates wrest him from the troubled sea. On the beach CPR cannot avert a shocking cardiac arrest. The bravery, the tragedy, and the utter helplessness meld together as shock gives way to grief. Experts are called in to identify the teeth marks, names are bandied about—tiger, bull, great white. Cold comfort for those already gripped by the psycho-socio phobia, of panic around sharks. A frenzy feeding on human frailty and the vulnerability that is exposed by the deep blue sea. Talk inevitably turns to all too human concerns of patrols, nets, a vendetta kill and more broadly the question of culls. Ah the taste of blood in the water. Straying far from common sense, the sacred balance of the more-than human world and its complex relations seem implausible, alas, and the reality of mass destruction of habitat as inconceivable to the narrow mind; whose sense of rights and territory are bound and bonded by a human exceptionalism, vouchsafed by the misguided progress of the dominant species. Whose built environment supersedes the necessity of the wild and untamed or the god of industry forbid, a thriving ecology. The irony of rhyming slang, the shark—Noah’s Ark or maligned doubly in the euphemism, as the men in grey suits. I know sharks not only belong in the sea, they are integrally woven into the fabric of all marine life, to the health of the ocean. To be honest they are woven into the fabric of my life, not through fear or mistrust but through presence and respect. When people seek to needlessly destroy them, they hurt us (living organisms and sentient life) all and all we rely on is further compromised.    (© Kim Satchell, 2014)

The great shark lineage has been swimming the oceans for about 400 million years . As a lineage they have survived four of the five previous mass extinction events. Perhaps some members of the lineage will make it through the extinction event that is now occurring, perhaps not. But it isn’t only a question of numbers, or of time, or of survival. It is for us today a question of how we take a stand for the lives and deaths of others. The threats to sharks go way beyond the WA kill, and our activism is needed everywhere. At the same time, these deaths are caused specifically in our name, and it is our responsibility to bring them to a speedy and lasting halt.

Postscript

After completing this post, I came across an article discussing research that shows that many sharks practice ‘natal philopatry’, meaning that females return to their own place of birth in order to give birth to their own offspring. Whether or not these findings are applicable to sharks in WA is unknown, but the authors conclude that ‘our findings support the emerging paradigm that natal philopatry is widespread in mobile marine vertebrates’. Somehow, when I think of mums going home to have their babies, sharks don’t seem quite so remote from us humans! And I would like to know: have any of the sharks that have been killed in this latest assault been pregnant?

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources

The greatest part of the factual information concerning sharks is sourced to the Oceana publication ‘Predators as Prey‘, Wikipedia, and the IUCN.

Postscript: this just came in – an update on the drum lines, and a chance to voice your oppostion!

Dear Deborah,

It’s sickening. More than 100 sharks have now been caught and many killed or found dead on the drum lines under Western Australia’s terrible bait-and-kill policy.There’s still no evidence that the program improves the safety of beach swimmers, yet now it could be extended for another THREE years.

WA Premier Colin Barnett is trying to seek approval to continue the shark slaughter until April 2017. But Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt is reviewing the ‘trial’ policy and has the power to end it for good. He’s accepting public submissions right now, and a huge public outcry could tip the balance at this critical moment.

We have to act fast: there are only a few days left to make our voices heard before Minister Hunt makes his final decision. Can you send an urgent email to stop the cull and save our sharks?

Take-action-button.png
The WA shark culling program has already created massive international embarrassment and controversy for Australia. More than two-thirds of the sharks caught were under the 3-metre length limit. The majority of the sharks caught and killed were tiger sharks, a species never known to have ever killed a single person in WA.

Then there’s the cost: since 26 January, one man has been paid a whopping $5,705 per day to catch and kill innocent sharks [1]. What’s more, the drum lines strung out at sea have been known to catch protected species, including dusky whaler and mako sharks.

Whatever way you look at it, this shark cull is a dead-end waste of time and money that could be otherwise spent providing real solutions to protect beach swimmers. The millions of dollars being diverted to this program could be spent on more and better scientific research into shark behaviours, or trialing tracking devices and sonar beacon repellents.

Show Minister Hunt to you want him to end the WA shark cull for good and instead ensure these funds be used for more effective shark management programs.

Of course no one wants to see any more people injured by sharks at sea. I regularly visit Sydney’s beautiful beaches with my wife, six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. We’re truly lucky to have beautiful beaches so close to our homes. But the oceans are there to share.

I know I’d regret giving the next generation the impression other living creatures should be simply killed if they caused an ‘inconvenience’ or fear. If you feel the same way, please consider sending an urgent email to Minister Greg Hunt today.

With hope for a humane solution,

Ben Pearson
Program Director
Greenpeace Australia Pacific

[1] Shark catch-and-kill fisherman being paid $5705 a day, Perth Now, 29 January 2014.

 

Lethal Heat: Lament for the Dead

They were young and beautiful, and they were dying. Some fell out of the trees, some crawled down and died on the ground. Some left this life still gripping the branch. Babies clung to dead mothers, and struggling mothers held dead babies.

The heat was relentless and the suffering went on and on as death worked its way through 100,000 or more flying-foxes in SE Queensland and Northern New South Wales. It may be the greatest mammalian mass death event to be caused by the new regime of extreme heat. It is probably also the first of many. Who will live and who will die becomes a question of temperature, refuge, and assistance. Much cannot be prevented.

Carers are working their hearts out. Support is needed in every area. Anguish is everywhere, and so too is commitment.

Behind this mass death is a history of persecution and on-going conquest. It is a history of loss of forests, refuge areas, blossoms and nectar, and of ever more urbanisation and conflict. Flying-foxes are these great pollinators, the night-workers of the Australian bush. Ranged against them is a desire amongst many humans to take over the world by relentlessly grasping or destroying the lives of others.

Courtesy of Nick Edards
Courtesy of Nick Edards

There was a time when flying-foxes regularly flew their great long trips across forests and escarpments, and returned home again because the way was known, and home was there. In some places life is like this still.

I remember stories the Aboriginal people told me about how flying-foxes are mates with the Rainbow Serpent. How they come and go in a pulse that is equally the pulse of the rainy time. They come bringing blessings because they call up rain, and when they depart they take their blessings elsewhere. They are kin – ‘one red blood’ in the words of David Gulpilil.

Now there is the haunting of mass death – it is possible that their blessings may indeed leave this earth forever. It is not only lives that are extinguished, but also the blessings of those lives. It may be that the earth is bleeding out now, and we are witnessing yet another aorta falling open.

We don’t have respectful methods for dealing with all these dead bodies. The image of wheelie-bins filled with dead flying-foxes shows a necessary pragmatism in the face of a huge problem, but is also deeply disturbing. Where will the bodies be taken? Will they be buried? Who will mark the grave-sites? Who will sing them home?

We lack appropriate mourning rituals for all this death. In truth, I wonder if we are capable of taking in the magnitude of the suffering. And yet in the weeks to come we will need to develop ways to honour the dead, to mourn their passing, to cherish the survivors, and to praise the carers.

For tonight, a candle is burning here in Sydney and I am dreaming of a flying-fox paradise. There the forests are unfelled, blossoming is sequential, flying-foxes travel and stop, eat and move on to their hearts’ content. They depart, and when they return, home is still there. Every branch and blossom welcomes them, and paradise is not a dream, but the real world of co-evolved life.

DSC02290

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 Postscript:

A report from a mass death event in NSW last year enables us to gain a visual sense of encounter:

Resources:

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/highly-significant-heatwave-smashes-australian-records-20140106-30dx5.html

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-08/hundred-thousand-dead-bats-after-qld-heatwave-rspca-says/5190644

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDXF5lSd5Dz6ZBxDOWNASc8bjI_8DLgLt

http://www.bats.org.au/

https://www.academia.edu/4539615/Multi-species_Knots_of_Ethical_Time  (an article on flying-foxes and rain)

 

 

Keeping Faith With Death

This speech was presented by Thom van Dooren on behalf of both Thom and me.

The audience: The Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales

The conference theme: Dangerous Ideas in Zoology

Date and Place: 2 November 2013, Australian Museum

Hawaiian Monk Seals, Kaua'i, 2012
Hawaiian Monk Seals, Kaua’i, 2012

For roughly the past five years, our combined research has focused on extinction. Drawing on the resources of the humanities – in particular philosophy and ethnographic work with local communities – we’ve explored what this particular form of mass death means for those caught up in it. How does extinction undermine various lives and livelihoods? How are funerary practices and indigenous forms of multispecies kinship challenged and unravelled by disappearing animals and plants? Why do some people dedicate their lives to conservation – what principles guide and motivate them – and why do others care so little?

Importantly, however, our work has not simply focused on the ‘human dimensions’ of extinction. Instead, we have sought to challenge any neat separation between the ‘natural’ and the ‘cultural’. Our research has explicitly drawn the humanities into conversation with biology, ecology and ethology to explore entangled communities of humans and nonhumans – to explore how diverse ways of life are being transformed at the edge of extinction.

As philosophers and anthropologists, one of our central concerns has been exploring what it might mean to develop an ethical relationship with extinction in our current period of anthropogenic mass extinciton. In this context, we have been particularly intrigued, and more than a little alarmed, by the growing interest that has surrounded so-called “de-extinction” projects. 

Over the last few decades, but with increased intensity in the last few years, a range of technologies and approaches have begun coalescing under the banner of ‘de-extinction’. Often framed in terms of atonement for past sins committed by a collective ‘humanity’, these de-extinction approaches range from the relatively low-tech programs of back-breeding that produced Heck cattle, through to the new possibilities opened up by interspecies somatic cell nuclear transfer and allele replacement techniques. While successes to date have been incredibly limited, the enthusiasm that surrounds the promise of something to come has proven to be highly contagious in some sectors.

A central part of what concerns us about these projects was succinctly captured by environmentalist Stewart Brand – now a leading de-extinction advocate – in his March 2013 TED talk. After listing a range of iconic species driven to extinction by humans in the past couple of hundred years, he posed the question of how this history makes us feel, and how it is that we ought to orient ourselves in relation to it.

In his words: “Sorrow, anger, mourning? Don’t mourn, organize” (3:25).

There is something disturbing about this response to extinction. Extinction, of course, is both an historical and an ongoing phenonenon, but importantly, it is also one that is firmly grounded in a wide range of complex cultural, religious, economic and technological practices and systems. Brand’s commitment to practical action, to moving forward, is perhaps not in itself problematic, but when it is presented as an alternative to a meaningful and empathetic engagement, something is wrong.

Buried within Brand’s suggestion is a deep misunderstanding about the nature of mourning. We don’t mourn for the fun of it, or to avoid doing something about a loss. Rather, as many psychologists and philosophers have insisted, processes of individual and collective mourning do important work in allowing us to learn from and ‘work through’ experiences of loss. In philosopher and counselor Thomas Attig’s terms, grieving is a process of ‘relearning the world’. For Attig:

As we grieve, we appropriate new understandings of the world and ourselves within it. We also become different in the light of the loss as we assume a new orientation to the world. [107-8]

In short, mourning is a process of learning and transformation to accommodate a changed reality. Mourning is about dwelling with a loss and so coming to appreciate what it means, how the world has changed, and how we must ourselves change and renew our relationships if we are to move forward from here. In this context, genuine mourning should open us into an awareness of our dependence on and relationships with those countless others being driven over the edge of extinction.

In short, dwelling with extinction in this way – taking it seriously, not rushing to overcome it – might be the more important political and ethical work for our time. In contrast, Brand’s response seems to us to buy into what the philosopher Daniel Innerarity has called “false motion”. Here, the bright promise of new technologies, of doing something, undermines the genuine reflection needed to get somewhere better – not just different. In this context, Innerarity argues that we are living in a political time in which a perceived forward motion often “conceals an incapacity to confront needed reforms and to shape our collective future”(The Future and its Enemies p.5).

The reality, however, is that there is no avoiding the necessity of the difficult cultural work of reflection and mourning. This work is not opposed to practical action, rather it is the foundation of any sustainable and informed response.

It is precisely this kind of reflection that leaves us with a healthy sense of cynicism in relation to Stewart Brand’s vision of the world and the possible place of resurrected species within it.

Take, for example, his concluding remark in this same TED lecture: “some species that we killed off completely we could consider bringing back to a world that misses them.”

But where is this world? In our research we have encountered many individuals and even small communities of people who miss extinct species. We would also be the first to agree that a plant species might ‘miss’ its extinct pollinators in a non-trivial sense that should be acknowledged. But to rush from here to a “world that misses them” is to move too far too quickly, and in so doing to brush over all of the difficult work of living well with others.

The history of endangered species conservation over the past few decades is one of a slow awareness of the need to work with local people – to take seriously their values, livelihoods and cultural formations. And yet, all this hard earned history seems to have been immediately forgotten when the possibility of a resurrected mammoth entered the room. Where would returned mammoths go? What about passenger pigeons? Once present in flocks of hundreds of millions of birds, which part of the contemporary United States will play host to these animals? How quickly will they be declared pests and targeted for ‘control’ or eradication? Closer to home, what sense does it make to dream of returning the thylacine when we cannot even ask people to make room for dingoes? How have the sheep farmers that once played a pivotal role in the extinction of the thylacine in Tasmania so changed their ways that this resurrection will be a success? Or are we resurrecting species for a future life in a theme park, or perhaps as pets – animals whose primary purpose is to serve as living testimony to the human techno-triumph of having brought them into being.

In short, while there might be some viable candidates for de-extinction, any realistic and responsible application of these technologies would need to take the broader cultural and economic context far more seriously than is currently the case. These are entangled human and nonhuman communities of life that need to be considered in all of their evolving complexity.

Taking this complexity seriously reminds us that many people do not miss these extinct species. Many people do not or will not welcome them back into their lives or environments.

The spate of recent monk seal killings in Hawaii is just one example from our current research. Here, an iconic charismatic mammal that is highly endangered is frequently targeted by locals – shot or beaten to death – and left on the beach. In the same island chain we have also been researching efforts to release captive bred Hawaiian crows (‘alalā), a species now extinct in the wild. Here too, local responses are deeply mixed – many supporting conservation but many others seeing it as an intrusion into local lives and landscapes. This is so much the case that conservationists fear that released birds may be targeted by local hunters unhappy about changing forest management.

What we see here is an all too familiar dynamic. As Jon Mooallem has noted with specific reference to the US, but the same could be said of many other places, “We live in … an age, with extraordinary empathy for endangered species. We also live at a time when alarming numbers of protected animals are being shot in the head, cudgeled to death or worse.”

The reasons behind these violent responses are always complex, but in more than a few cases – as Mooallem notes – it is the ‘success’ of conservation that is giving rise to these frictions. Species once at the edge of extinction have been restored and, in his words:  “[w]e suddenly remember why many of us didn’t want them around in the first place.” Wolves, sandhill cranes, sea otters, monk seals… the list goes on. “These animals can feel like illegitimate parts of the landscape to people who, for generations, have lived without any of them around — for whom their absence seems, in a word, natural.”

Of course, the difficulty we have convincing people that they should make room for a monk seal or a crow that has been missing from the forest for 10 years will pale in comparison to the suggestion that they ought to accommodate a carnivore like the thylacine or immense flocks of passenger pigeons.

In this complex context, we do not need the promise of a new techno-fix that allows us to reverse the unimaginable. Rather, what is needed is the kind of difficult reflection and discussion that forces us – as individuals and cultures – to dwell with our actions and their consequences, and in so doing – maybe, just maybe – begin to wind back the current rate of extinctions.

Bringing back a few species, through painful and fraught procedures that arguably have a very low chance of meaningful longterm success, whilst at the same time continuing to carry on the widespread destruction of living systems on this planet, is both monumental folly and cruelty. In an important sense, we are not yet ready for de-extinction – if indeed we ever will be.

Instead, what the current time demands is a genuine reckoning with ourselves as the agents of mass extinction.  In short, we need to mourn, to spend a little time with the dead; to keep faith with death and in so doing to own up to the reality of the world that we are ushering in.

 

Angry Spring

Earlier this year Australia came to the end of a summer that was so outstandingly hot and stressful that the Bureau of Meteorology added two new colours to its charts so as to be able to indicate the high heat levels. Will Steffen, a world leader in climate science and a key figure in the government-funded Climate Commission, wrote the report ‘Angry Summer’, showing the figures that enabled the public to get the picture of just what had been happening.

Eight months later, the story rolls on:  Angry Spring has flashed into New South Wales bringing fire, wind, heat, death, fear, injury, lightning, pain, peril, loss, despair, and, of course, anger. In the few months between February and October 2013 we had had a chance to think, evaluate, assess, and plan. Collectively, we hadn’t done well at all. The Climate Commission has been abolished (replaced, however, by the crowd-funded Climate Council). Climate change is treated as if it were a topic to be debated rather than a phenomenon about which to take action, and all the while it is accelerating.

As Peter and I continued our travels in North America, parts of our minds were focussed on home: on fires, on friends at risk, on the suffering of all who are in the paths of the fires. Parts of our minds were here where we were, of course, and the dissonance between the island country of the Pacific Northwest with its damp forests, lakes, inlets and sounds forms an incredible contrast to the news from NSW.

Those contrasts were with me when I walked into the Royal British Columbia Museum and found myself face-to-face with an exhibit on climate change that was without doubt the best I have ever encountered.

Debbie and mammoth Royal BC Museum
Debbie and mammoth
Royal BC Museum

The exhibit places contemporary climate change within the context of a dynamic, ever-changing earth system with all the changes in flora and fauna that have been part of the story of earth. It focuses, though, on the most recent era of human life in the north – the end of the most recent ice age. The life-size mammoth is an awesome reminder of the fact that change is earth’s way of life, and nothing lasts forever.

One section of the exhibit gives clear explanations of the main forces in climate dynamics: including the pulses of ocean currents and oscillations, the tilt of the earth, the earth’s orbit, and other factors that pulse at different rates and intersect to form patterns through time. Human impacts were set within the wider oscillations, and then it made good sense to talk about what the current changes imply for the future. Having always thought of this region as one of endless rainfall, it was fascinating and horrifying to learn that British Columbia, too, has recently experienced terrible fires, and can expect more. Indeed the great forests of the region could be lost to a range of impacts, including the devastating effects of the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae). This voracious little beetle is kept in check by freezing winters. As winters lose their frosty bite, the beetles multiply so rapidly that they are destroying forests throughout the western part of North America. The stories rolled on, with strong sections on greenhouse gases and global warming, and excellent suggestions for what individuals could do to reduce impact.

Canada is far from being a perfect society, as government bans on the public reporting of scientific findings attest.  Nevertheless, the climate change exhibit is supported by ’Environment Canada: Environmental Action Fund’, ‘Environment Canada: Eco-action Community Funding Program’, and the ‘British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection’.  As Libby Robin has discussed in an essay on climate change and museums, the role of the museum is to address big questions. In the BC Museum, the stories unfold in urgent scenarios that leave sensible people asking the great question: ‘what can I do?’ And indeed, the Museum offers a strong educational action program to accompany the exhibit.

While I was still immersed in this sense of urgency, I was shocked to learn that once again the PM Tony Abbott denies links between climate change and bushfires. And perhaps even worse, that there has been some suggestion in Australia that it is not good to talk about climate change in the midst of terrible fires. I gather that the idea behind this notion is that climate change is political, and no one should be politicking in the face of the fear and suffering of bushfires and the heroic efforts to contain the fires. But this idea is wrong. We in the ecological/environmental humanities  have been talking about climate change and bushfires in Australia for a good while now, and with a new government that wants to stifle research and informed conversation and action, it is imperative that we continue to tell the stories that move people to understanding and action.

Climate change is not politics. It is reality. Much of what we love is at risk – not only our own lives, but forests, animals, birds, plants, oceans, homes, neighbourhoods, communities, the future. What could be more important for us to talk about than the real world in which we are living? This is our life, our time, our responsibility, our debt to the future.

'Climate Rules' Royal BC Museum
‘Climate Rules’, Royal BC Museum

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

 

Take-Back Time ~ Science and Economy

Dendrobium speciosum
Dendrobium speciosum

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?

Take-back time is exactly now.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)