Environment and Climate

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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Late in 2005, after months of delicate negotiations, the National Library of Australia announced a remarkable coup: the purchase of a previously unknown collection of fifty-six watercolours of botanical and ornithological subjects drawn and painted in Sydney in the years 1788–90, the cradle period of European settlement in Port Jackson. The significance of these paintings, unsigned and undated, had for many years gone unrecognised. The watercolours, apparently acquired as early as 1792, had been held in England over several generations by the Moreton family, the Earls of Ducie. Over several generations, their significance had apparently been overlooked or simply not understood; in time, the portfolio, though safely held, had been forgotten. It came to light in 2004 during a routine valuation of the estate of Basil Moreton, sixth Earl of Ducie. The eventual sale was negotiated with representatives of the present and seventh Earl, David Moreton, who was committed to honouring his family’s long connection with Australia on properties in Queensland. But before that, it was necessary to identify the works more definitively beyond their (then) presumed Australian subject matter.

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Listening to the science: Coronavirus and climate change

David Holmes
Thursday, 22 October 2020

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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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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Borrowing a term coined by the late Jewish Nobel Laureate and vegetarian Isaac Bashevis Singer, Charles Patterson (in)famously likened humanity’s treatment of animals to an ‘eternal Treblinka’. In his 2001 book of the same name, Patterson set the mass murder of Europe’s Jews and industrialised animal slaughter side by side, drawing a line between the production methods of Chicago’s early twentieth-century slaughterhouses, the assembly-line technology pioneered by Henry Ford – an avowed anti-Semite and Hitler supporter – and the death camps of Nazi Germany. Another Jewish writer, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, is said to have observed that ‘Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals’.

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'Ambassadors from Another Time' by Stephen Orr

The ABR Podcast
Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Each year, ABR publishes an issue dedicated to sustainability, climate change, and the environment. In today’s episode, we look back on Stephen Orr’s Eucalypt Fellowship essay, which was the feature of the October 2017 issue of ABR. His essay, ‘Ambassadors from Another Time’, attempts to understand Australia’s complex relationship with the eucalypt, examining the nation’s evolving understanding of these iconic trees.

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Written by a prominent economist with a long career in emissions reduction and policy modelling, this engaging book attempts to debunk eleven myths that undermine effective climate action. Jaccard also offers a ‘simple’ path to climate success, built around strong regulatory action, carbon pricing, a system of carbon tariffs, and supporting poorer countries in energy transitions. Jaccard focuses on emissions reduction in the transport and energy sectors, in line with his areas of expertise.

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