We live in an era of profound ecological disruption, with reports on climate change, habitat destruction, depleted oceans and mass extinction piling up by the day. Yet an important part of the climate story is commonly overlooked: the emotional toll of ongoing environmental loss. Jennifer Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Humanities, University of Washington
Five years ago, an extinction risk specialist wrote in The Conversation about Australia's woefully low spending on conservation of its 'treasure trove of biodiversity'. Regrettably, nothing has changed since. Australian wildlife features embarrassingly frequently on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species – see details here.
Nothing is likely to change either while we allow feral horses (aka Brumbies) to roam in national parks, and racing horses to train on remote shorelines, to mention two recently highlighted, smaller-scale examples of reckless measures…
…or while vast tracts of vegetation are cleared, often in order to run yet more head of cattle. Meat & Livestock Australia's cattle industry projection for 2018 is 27,500,000 cows. They predict this will rise to 29,400,000 by 2022. It's not hard to imagine how hooves might damage delicately balanced ecosystems; but are you aware of the size of cows' contribution to global emissions of greenhouse gases? In Australia, direct livestock emissions account for 10 per cent of the nation's total (see greater detail here).
And what about pets? The University of Sydney estimated in 2017 that a medium-sized dog's carbon paw-print might be similar to that of a large SUV. Increasingly meaty pet diets have greater environmental consequences. Then there's all the paraphernalia, from matching jewelled collar-and-leash sets to designer coats, self-warming mats, touch-activated toys, massagers, electric toothbrushes, special shampoos, automatic doors and so on.
While we're on the subject, do you know how many koalas are killed or injured by domestic dogs every year? Or by vehicles in new housing developments? I received disheartening figures from the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF). Between 1996 and 2017 there were 39,906 admissions to the South East Queensland Koala Hospital: from 2011 to 2017 there were almost twice as many admissions (17,941) as in the previous 15 years. Which suggests that the severe impacts (often literally) of development on koala populations are worsening. (For more details, see the Queensland government's website.) Koalas are listed as Vulnerable in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT, but the AKF believes koalas should be listed in all states, and in the South East Queensland bioregion their conservation status should be Critically Endangered. Imagine if Australia's international reputation was for killing off its koalas as well as the Reef?
There is no doubt that an ever-growing global population and an impending climate catastrophe are the greatest challenges facing all the planet's occupants. On overpopulation, I have nothing to add to Sir David Attenborough's views other than a wish that Australians would give up their deference for those citizens with large numbers of offspring. It is grossly irresponsible to bring four or five or more children into this overcrowded world with its already depleted resources. It is particularly galling that many right-wing politicians in Australia are Roman Catholics, and boast in their profiles of being the proud father (most of them are men) of numerous kids. Apart from anything else, that's four or five or more potential conservative religious nutters for our children to have to contend with a few years' hence.
We need to talk about climate catastrophe… How to encourage people to take their heads out of the sand. How to move 'climate change' to the next level while at the same time taking it out of the 'too difficult' box. How to get more people to demand that their government produces long long overdue, tangible climate policy. How to convey the urgency of the matter. Discuss how many tipping points have already been reached. How to even broach the subject with most Australians about paying more and using less in order to reduce consumption and limit growth. How to drive valuing nature and conservation up the political agenda so it's alongside job creation and building schools, hospitals and houses.
During an interview a few weeks ago by a PhD student on the subject of long-distance activism, I was asked what The Bimblebox Alliance's (TBA) current campaign was. There was no straight answer. For the last five years, we have battled to prevent a high-conservation-value Nature Refuge from being obliterated by Waratah's Galilee Coal Project (aka China First) in Central Queensland's Galilee Basin. Our strategy has ranged from pestering incumbent ministers for the environment; to making submissions to parliamentary committees considering relevant legislation; to attending conferences promoting private ownership of Protected Areas. In addition, TBA lobbies for more robust environmental legislation, efficacious safeguarding of Protected Areas, and a more prominent profile for the natural world among society's big concerns. Most days, there's so much to do I don't know where to start, so being at a distance becomes less relevant.
Within the Galilee, our cause has been eclipsed somewhat by the Stop Adani campaign. I am trying to stop Adani as well as Waratah.
This is not good news Recently, Adani has asked Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg for a further 10 billion litres of river water for its Carmichael coal mine in drought-declared Central Queensland. The Indian mining company claims this neither requires an additional Environmental Impact Statement nor activates the Federal water trigger. (This is an outrage: call Frydo's office.)
Whatever an activist's main focus, there are always smaller-scale battles that draw you in, such as – in my case – the Toondah Harbour redevelopment on Moreton Bay in Queensland; logging the Tarkine in northwestern Tasmania; and the plights of the critically endangered Leadbeater's Possum, Victoria's faunal emblem and victim of the destruction of Mountain Ash in the Central Highlands, and the tiny migrant Orange-bellied Parrot.
This is not good news The Walker Group's latest version of its Toondah Harbour plan will sacrifice 43 hectares of Ramsar-protected wetland. High-rise (10-storey) apartment blocks and a 400-berth marina will replace the habitat of wading birds and many other species. The developer presses on, seemingly in splendid isolation from local community wishes, a wider planetary context, and Australia's international obligations as a Ramsar Convention signatory. (Remind the Queensland government of their wider responsibilities.)
This is not good news Despite an extinction crisis on this continent, the Liberal-Coalition federal government has been slashing environmental budgets and staff for years. Tasmania, for example, has more than 600 threatened species but a threatened species department that amounts to two full-time positions – one is currently unfilled – and an annual budget of only $5000. (Support the Bob Brown Foundation's campaign to protect the Tarkine.)
Closer to home, this happened down the road last week…
A Lemon-scented Gum was felled by developer Ausco to make way for six units where once there was a single house. Bayside Council rejected the planning application on several grounds, but VCAT (Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal) upheld it on appeal.
Since living in Australia I've developed a horror of wood-chippers, the sound of which makes me anxious. Considerably worse is an excavator mulcher. Its Canadian manufacturer boasts it can shred a whole tree in seconds. I've seen the video: it is the stuff of nightmares.
Plastics pollution is up there with the planet's most taxing problems. Sea life is starving and choking on plastic; huge areas of ocean have become little better than a micro-plastic soup. Does knowing plastic can be 'recycled' discourage people from making different consumption choices? Since China no longer imports everyone else's waste for recycling, how long will it take Australia to construct more and smarter recycling plants? How do we develop the market for recycled plastic as opposed to using new materials, which is often the cheaper option? How do we help address waste management in developing countries?
Once upon a time adults didn't need straws to drink. Could they therefore start refusing them in all those fast-food chains and cocktail bars? If you're one of those people who gets cranky at the checkout because you'd forgotten that the major supermarkets recently banned single-use plastic bags and didn't bring your own shopping bags with you, be quiet. Plastic-free living is not just for July. Have you got yourself a keep-cup yet for all those takeaway coffees? That's something else you need to remember to take with you each day: it's a tough life, eh?
How can I 'unsee' heartbreaking images such as this? Or the seahorse carrying a cotton bud.
Do I need help with anger-management? Am I depressed?
This is from research published in Nature:
Climate change is increasingly understood to impact mental health through multiple pathways of risk, including intense feelings of grief as people suffer climate-related losses to valued species, ecosystems and landscapes.
Lesley Hughes, ecologist and Professor of Biology at Macquarie University, has written a piece in The Monthly entitled When Planetary Catastrophe Is Your Day Job. If you read this, I won't need to grapple with tricky topics such as balancing motivation with despair; influencing those suffering from 'apocalypse fatigue'; coaxing those frozen in fear or flatly denying the facts. It is unconscionable that climate change specialists are the only members of the scientific community who hope their conclusions are wrong. It's hardly surprising many of them have developed anxiety.
Just because you don't know the answer to the problem doesn't mean you shouldn't say there is one. Sir David Attenborough
Professor Hughes spoke at the Natural Resource Management Science Conference in Adelaide in April: the theme was Science for Policy in a Changing World. The gist of it was, how can natural resource researchers and managers deal with the challenges facing science in a post-truth world? Scientists have never been so undermined by the wilful protection of self-interested resources companies by pollies in their pay and a compromised media.
She gave delegates three take-home messages:
• We don't have much time. Relatively few species may be able to cope long-term.
• Recognition of the risks is widespread but policy and practice lag far behind our knowledge.
• Far bolder adaptation planning is needed.
This is not good news This week we read that Antarctica is melting faster than predicted by researchers who erred on the side of caution in the beginning to avoid being accused of scaremongering. And still we have barely begun to prepare for inevitable sea level rises. (Draw attention to communities already flooded by rising seas, from Miami to the Maldives to Micronesia.)
Professor Hughes, like most writers, tries ultimately to put a positive slant on things. You are not allowed to be wholly doom-and-gloom. If you want to be listened to, you cannot present a totally bleak outlook. You're not supposed to use words such as catastrophe or apocalypse, mass extinction, even biodiversity: these words unnerve people; and turn them off. I have a lot of respect, however, for those who don't live in fear of what is expected, and tell it like it really is.
There is the occasional good news story: I came across this the other day. I have long advocated for increased federal funding for the training of more Aboriginal rangers. No one knows how to look after country better than the continent's original inhabitants: we should listen and learn and work with them as custodians. This effort brings together ancient wisdom, experienced conservationists, Aboriginal youth, and the latest technology for research on the ground and permanently recording elders' teachings. It lifted my spirits, briefly.
When the Pacific Island climate warriors came to Australia in 2014, and manoeuvred their kayaks in the way of massive coal bulk carriers leaving Newcastle docks, they declared: 'We are not drowning. We are fighting'. More days than not I am not drowning either, literally or in despair. Not yet. I am driven, not because I believe we will succeed in galvanising governments in time, but because there is no other option than to do whatever I can to fix the biggest problem imaginable in my lifetime. I am terrified by the prospect my children's children face. I cannot bear the fact that we are fouling our only home, a beautiful blue planet, with its sublime landscapes, seas, skies and living things. The natural world, albeit increasingly battered and bruised, will always be my inspiration, my faith, and in one way or another always, my life.
We’re doing the reverse of what we should be doing, with everybody’s silent acquiescence… Mayer Hillman, Senior Fellow Emeritus, Policy Studies Institute, London