Environment and Climate

I don’t know why some people seem to think voting is a great imposition. I love lining up and watching the person behind the table pick up the ruler and find my name. There’s a little warm glow of being one tiny thread in the great muddled ball of string that is the democratic process. Always, in the queue there’s a particular feeling: pleased, proud, everyone hugging to ourselves the little secret of how we’re going to vote. When my kids were at primary school, I loved helping to person the stall churning out the Democracy Sausages.

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Approximately 37,000 years ago, a volcano erupted in the south-east corner of the continent now known, in settler-colonial parlance, as Australia. His name is Budj Bim. As his lava spread and cooled, Budj Bim’s local relations, the Gunditjmara people, set about developing new ways of managing the changing landscape. They would engineer, most famously, a large and sophisticated aquaculture system, one dedicated in particular to the raising and harvesting of Kooyang, or eels. This infrastructure, explains Gunditjmara man Damein Bell, was instrumental in providing food to ‘one of the largest population settlements in Australia before Europeans arrived’.

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Ecologist Steve Morton’s new book opens with a telling anecdote: as a young scientist in Alice Springs, he often advised visiting film crews about promising locations for their nature documentaries. When one group returned after a week in the desert, they reported back on a single hitch in an otherwise successful trip – a lack of wind-blown sand dunes. To fix this problem they cleared spinifex off a dune, creating a large expanse of bare sand, the illusion enhanced by accommodating morning winds.

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There is a debate as long-running as climate change itself: can capitalism, with its demand for endless growth, be sustained on a planet with finite bounds and limited resources? Freemarketeers say yes. For them, the issue is not capitalism per se but an economic model that does not factor in the true cost of emissions. As a result, we the people and the planet are subsidising industries that pollute for free. The counterargument is based on simple intuition: How on earth can capitalism, the unstoppable force be contained inside the inelastic object? This has never received a convincing reply.

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Most people, and certainly most politicians, don’t spend much time or emotional energy thinking about whether human life on this planet will still exist in one hundred years’ time, or what efforts might need to be made right now if we and our descendants are to avoid extinction.

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At the height of the Millennium Drought (2001–9), I took the late Deborah Bird Rose to my favourite childhood swimming hole near Dubbo, on the Wambool (Macquarie River). The banks had eroded and a flood had washed the sandy beach a hundred metres upstream, burying trees halfway up to their crowns. Weeds flourished in the churned ground, and scum floated on the shallows. Nothing seemed safe from degradation. Farther west, on the Barka (Darling River) near Bourke, we passed private water storages lining the banks of the river for kilometres. The scalded land was strewn with rubbish and discarded machinery. Wind blew dust into our eyes. At our feet, a dead sheep lay in an irrigation channel. ‘This is it,’ I said. ‘This is broken country.’ Rose thought for a moment, then turned and said, ‘No, it’s wounded.’ It was a reminder to afford nature its potential to heal.

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Reading Richard Flanagan’s searing allegory The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (2020) and Delia Falconer’s new non-fiction book, Signs and Wonders: Dispatches from a time of beauty and loss, in rapid succession was a surreal, slightly unmooring experience. Both authors lucidly capture the dreamlike state of disbelief and horrified fury with which we’ve watched the world slide terribly into the 2020s. Both are part of an outpouring of new language, new stories, new ways of expressing our reactions to the barely imaginable scale of realities we can no longer ignore: fire columns that remind NASA of dragons; a pandemic that conjures news scenes we had thought the province of cinema. As our poor human cognition struggles to catch up, scientists become poets, novelists become scientists.

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At what point does a ramble or meander through the bush become a bona fide bushwalk? Was my two-hour stroll near Wolli Creek during semi-lockdown – when I locked eyes with the now-maligned fruit bat – a bushwalk or just a ramble? Answers to these questions vary wildly according to the conflicting approaches to bushwalking detailed in Melissa Harper’s updated version of The Ways of the Bushwalker (2007).

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Before reading Richard Flanagan’s new book, Toxic: The rotting underbelly of the Tasmanian salmon industry, it is useful to remember that Australia’s southern isle was once the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land. During the first fifty years of the colony’s existence, a small ruling élite achieved a near monopoly over the island’s most lucrative natural resources, the subservience of the majority convict population, and considerable profit from the public licences and patronage associated with political power. Far from these privileges ending with the cessation of transportation, self-government allowed the establishment to so entrench their interests that no substantial separation existed between the promotion of them and the functions of the state.

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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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