Environment and Climate

In July 2020, Indigenous residents of the remote central Australian community of Laramba lost their case in the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal. For decades, the water that flowed through the taps into Laramba homes had been contaminated with high levels of uranium – about three times the safe limit. The case was a desperate attempt to force the government to assume legal responsibility and to fix the problem. They didn’t succeed: the Tribunal found that the Department of Housing (as the landlord) wasn’t required under Northern Territory law to provide safe drinking water to its tenants.

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It’s an achievement to write about the climate crisis – and the resulting increase in Australian firestorms – without having people turn away to avoid their mounting ecological unease. Despite experiencing the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 directly, I too am guilty of looking away. It’s easier that way. Danielle Celermajer, however, excels at both holding our attention and holding us to account, balancing the horror and hope of not-so-natural disasters, specifically extreme Australian bushfires, in her new book of narrative non-fiction, Summertime.

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The Anthropocene by Julia Adeney Thomas, Mark Williams, and Jan Zalasiewicz & Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

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March 2021, no. 429

When fourteen-year-old Dara McAnulty penned a diary entry on 7 August 2018, his grief poured out in stanzas. He felt an acute need for ‘birdsong, abundant fluttering / humming, no more poison, destruction. / Growing for growth, it has to end.’ One month later, he took these words to the People’s Walk for Wildlife in London: ‘I call it a poem but I am not sure it is. I feel it would be good to say aloud, to a crowd … the words spilled out.’ For the event, McAnulty added a title: Anthropocene.

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The Climate Cure should have been on every Australian federal politician’s Christmas list. As Tim Flannery explains, our federal politicians, stymied by Coalition climate change denialists and the fossil fuel lobby, have failed the climate challenge of the past two decades, so that we have ‘sleepwalked deep into the world that exists just seconds before the climate clock strikes a catastrophic midnight’. But ‘at the last moment, between megafires and Covid-19, governments are at last getting serious about the business of governance’.

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A detailed timeline prefaces Fire Flood Plague. Stretching from September 2019 to September 2020, it charts events so momentous that Christos Tsiolkas describes them as being ‘imbued with an atavistic, Biblical solemnity’. Sophie Cunningham, the book’s editor, notes in her introduction that many of the contributors (herself included) have found themselves drafting their essays ‘once, twice, thrice, as we’ve progressed from bushfire and smoke-choked skies, to the early days of the pandemic … and into the exhaustion of what is becoming a marathon’.

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Last month I was volunteering with a group of botanists surveying coastal heathland in the Tarkine Forest Reserve in North-West Tasmania when one of them cried out, ‘Orchid!’ We all rushed over excitedly, our phones and pocket magnifiers at the ready. It was a Green-comb Spider-orchid (Caladenia dilatata), with long, delicate-green limbs and a reddish-purply face, hovering like a ballet dancer in mid-leap. The first thing that astonished me was how tiny it was – no bigger than a human eye – and then, how solitary. Like many orchids, C. dilatata uses sexual deception to mimic the shape of a female wasp; when males attempt to mate with it, they accidentally collect pollen, fertilising the next orchid they visit. Millions of seeds scatter on the wind, but only a few will land on a sunny patch of soil where the correct mycorrhizal fungus is present for it to germinate.

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If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there has never been a better time to respond to the climate crisis than now. The global nature of Covid-19 has made it clear that global issues need a coordinated response and can easily affect the welfare of every human being on earth. The virus has shown us that it is absolutely crucial to listen to the science. Governments, in responding to epidemiological forecasts, have rapidly spent hundreds of billions of dollars on welfare subsidies, enforcing social distancing, protective equipment, mental health services, and vaccine research.

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Modern mega-farms are like nothing on earth. Imagine a vast black field stretching from horizon to horizon. A driverless tractor glides across the skyline spreading synthetic fertiliser. A cluster of grain towers looms over an empty asphalt parking lot. A row of pig sheds gleams in the distance. The square blot of the manure lagoon simmers in the hot sun. There are no trees. No birds. No mess. Everything is orderly, unpeopled, and entirely alien.

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In her paean to walking, Rebecca Solnit notes that any history of walking is by nature provisional. As a subject it trespasses almost infinite fields: ‘anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies’. Despite such ungainly dimensions, her book Wanderlust (2000) maps rich connections between walking, thinking, and creativity. These stretch from the peripatetic philosophers of ancient Greece to the Romantic poets; from Walter Benjamin on Parisian streets to political protesters crossing no-go zones.

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Body Count by Paddy Manning & Fire by Stephen J. Pyne

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October 2020, no. 425

Last spring, as the harbingers of a dangerous season converged into a chorus of forewarning, I decided it might be a good idea to keep a diary of the period now known as ‘Black Summer’. The diary starts in September with landscapes burning in southern Queensland and Brazil. Three hundred thousand people rally across Australia, calling for action on climate change. I attend a forum of emergency managers where, during a discussion about warning systems, a senior fire manager declares: ‘We need to tell the public we cannot help them in the ways they expect, but we’re never going to tell them.’ Next week, Greg Mullins, the former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, comments on ABC radio, ‘We’re going to have fires that I can’t comprehend.’ Federal politicians assure the nation that we are resilient.

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