As President Donald Trump mulls over whether to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, it is hard to imagine that he’s listening to the experts. US climate researchers are being so stifled, ignored or blackballed that France has now offered sanctuary to these misunderstood souls.
One might prefer to think of Trump as an outlier in an otherwise environmentally sane world. But alarmingly, there’s just too much evidence to the contrary.
A recent analysis, led by Guillaume Chapron of Sweden’s Agricultural University, reveals a rising tide of assaults on environmental safeguards worldwide. If nothing else, it illustrates the sheer range and creativity of tactics used by those who seek to profit at the expense of nature.
The assaults on environmental protections are so diverse that Chapron and his colleagues had to devise a new “taxonomy” to categorise them all. They have even set up a public database to track these efforts, giving us a laundry list of environmental rollbacks from around the world.
One might perhaps hope that species staring extinction in the face would be afforded special protection. Not in the western US states of Idaho and Montana, where endangered gray wolves have been taken off the endangered species list, meaning they can be shot if they stray outside designated wilderness or management areas.
In Western Australia, an endangered species can be legally driven to extinction if the state’s environment minister orders it and parliament approves.
Think diverse ecosystems are important? In Canada, not so much. There, native fish species with no economic, recreational or indigenous value don’t get any legal protection from harm.
And in France – a crucial flyway for Eurasian and African birds – killing migratory birds is technically illegal. But migrating birds could be shot out of the sky anyway because the environment minister ordered a delay in the law’s enforcement.
In South Africa, the environment minister formerly had authority to limit environmental damage and oversee ecological restoration at the nation’s many mining sites. But that power has now been handed over to the mining minister, raising fears of conflict between industry and environmental interests.
In Brazil, the famous Forest Code that has helped to reduce deforestation rates in the Amazon has been seriously watered down. Safeguards for forests along waterways and on hillsides have been weakened, and landowners who illegally fell forests no longer need to replant them.
And in Indonesia, it’s illegal to carry out destructive open-pit mining in protected forest areas. But aggressive mining firms are forcing the government to let them break the law anyway, or else face spending public money on legal battles.
In many parts of the world, those who criticise environmentally destructive corporations are getting hit with so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation”, or SLAPP suits.
In Peru, for instance, a corporation that was mowing down native rainforest to grow “sustainable” cacao for chocolate routinely used lawsuits and legal threats to intimidate critics.
That’s before we’ve even discussed climate change, which you might not be allowed to do in the US anyway. Proposed legislation would prohibit the government from considering climate change as a threat to any species. No wonder researchers want to move overseas.
As the above examples show, essential environmental safeguards are being conveniently downsized, diminished, ignored or swept under the carpet all over the world.
Viewed in isolation, each of these actions might be rationalised or defended – a small compromise made in the name of progress, jobs or the economy. But in a natural world threatened with “death by a thousand cuts”, no single wound can be judged in isolation.
Without our hard-won environmental protections, we would all already be breathing polluted air, drinking befouled water, and living in a world with much less wildlife.
This article is an edited version of a blog post that originally appeared here.
What can creative literature tell us about radical environmental change? Most people accept that literature can be closely connected to places. Whether it is Dickens’s London or Hardy’s Wessex, we also accept that imaginative works deliver something about the nature of place that does not necessarily come to us by any other means.
It is a regional literary history that nevertheless encompasses some of the nation’s finest writers — Albert Facey, Dorothy Hewett, Peter Cowan, Jack Davis, Randolph Stow, Elizabeth Jolley, Tom Flood, John Kinsella. Facey’s A Fortunate Life (1981) is a landmark in Australian autobiography; Hewett, Cowan and Stow helped define literary modernism in Australia; Jack Davis was a leading figure in the Aboriginal literary renaissance; and Jolley’s The Well (1986) and Flood’s Oceana Fine (1990) both won the Miles Franklin literary award.
What unites these works? Is it simply a quirk of fate that a sparsely populated hinterland in Australia’s most isolated state produces a body of literature that rivals in many ways the literary outputs of the great Australian metropolitan centres in Melbourne and Sydney?
For the answer to this question one has to understand the history of the WA wheatbelt. In two 30-year periods (1900-1930 and 1945-1975) an area of land roughly the size of Britain was stripped of its native vegetation for the production of grain and livestock. It is a crescent of land that begins just north of Geraldton on the west coast and sweeps south and east to Esperance on the south coast.
When the Swan River Colony was founded in 1829, six years before Melbourne, it was with the intention of forming an agricultural colony of closely settled yeoman farmers, who would own their own land and congregate in small, nicely spaced villages.
However, the antique soil of WA bore almost no resemblance to the fertile soils of recently glaciated northern Europe. Four to five more or less rainless months, where dry desert winds blow steadily across the vegetation was also an unprecedented challenge to farming methods learned in the British Isles. Lastly, there were almost no rivers to speak of, and permanent summer water was a rare commodity.
For all these reasons, the agricultural dream of WA remained largely unrealized. The game-changing event was the goldrush of the 1890s. The population of the colony trebled between 1889 and 1896, from 44,000 to 138,000.
Knowing that the gold would be dug out before too long but wanting to capture this new cache of colonists, the colonial government passed the Homesteads Act in 1893 to parcel out land, and established an Agricultural Bank in 1894 to finance farmer-settlers. An army of land surveyors fanned out through the southwest and provisions for water, fertilizer and rail transit were quickly put into motion. Towns were gazetted, one-teacher schools popped up and WA took the lead in distance learning.
Albert Facey’s uncle Archie McCall had come over from South Australia to work the goldfields and was one of those who leapt at the land offer. Dorothy Hewett’s grandparents had made their money selling goods to diggers heading out to the goldfields at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie and with this they purchased an extensive parcel of prime land at Yealering not far from McCall’s farm at Wickepin.
The dream refracted
What we get in both of these very different writers is a distinct picture of the dream of the wheatbelt. It is this dream — a settler-colonial ideology of farming independence — that we see refracted through the wheatbelt writers all the way through the 20th century.
The animating vision of the wheatbelt was an amalgam of ideals. On the one hand, it appealed to the basic material prospect of upward mobility. In the late 19th and early 20th century, opportunities for advancement through education were not generally available.
But the wheatbelt vision seemed even more deeply situated than this, offering itself as an antidote to the ills of modern city life. As the various states all moved to convert low-yield pastoral production to high-yield cash-cropping, there emerged a veritable ideology of wheat in the post-Federation years, and right through to the Depression.
C.J. Dennis joined the chorus in his bouncy ballad simply called Wheat from 1918:
Tho’ it ain’t a life o’ pleasure,
An’ there’s little time for leisure,
It’s contentin’, in a measure, is the game of growin’
Dennis and others helped to drag crop-farming away from its associations with European peasant drudgery and into the noble task of nation-building and feeding the “bread-eating” (i.e. European or European-derived) countries of the world.
For Facey, even though his memoir was not published until 1981 (the year before he died), the dream of the wheatbelt and the ideology of wheat remain preserved as if in amber. The basic tasks of “clearing” the wheatbelt — particularly the regimes of annual burning and cutting — are remembered with particular pride by Facey.
Born a generation and a half later, Hewett grew up in a farm that was already in place. Although she left Lambton Downs (as it was dubbed) at the age of 11, Hewett’s writing returned again and again to the wheatbelt. Hewett’s wheatbelt had a mythic, gothic flavour in which the dream of it is present but often in inverted form. This wheatbelt is beset by a pernicious fatality and mired in the sexual miseries of her extended family.
Hewett deserves credit for being the first writer to take seriously the fact that the wheatbelt was built on land whose traditional owners had not disappeared but were still there, either impoverished in fringe-camps or incarcerated in government or church institutions.
The other side of the farming frontier
But it was the emergence of Aboriginal writing in the generation politicized by the citizenship referendum that brought a powerful voice from the other side of the wheatbelt frontier. Jack Davis had spent time in the notorious Moore River Native Settlement on the edge of the mid-northern wheatbelt, and then (after the untimely death of his father), with relatives of his mother’s sister at the Brookton reserve in the Avon valley. There he did the usual itinerant work that Aboriginal families did in the wheatbelt’s early years — clearing, fencing, shearing, rabbiting.
What Davis gives us in his poetry of the 1970s and the great plays of the 80s is a completely alternative vision of the wheatbelt. It doesn’t look like wheatbelt literature for the simple reason that it does not proceed either positively or negatively from the wheatbelt dream. Instead, it proceeds from Aboriginal presence in the land.
The tragedy of the Noongar is shown in all its woeful extremity, but tempered by Davis’s astringent sense of humour—his black humour if you like. But really Jack Davis is writing about survival. His example has provided a platform for a writer like Kim Scott to foster new forms of Noongar creative re-emergence, and also new forms of penetrating critique.
At the same time that a consciousness of Aboriginal dispossession began to force its way into the understanding of the wheatbelt, a much sharper sense of its ecological cost was also starting to emerge. Certainly, right through my literary history of the wheatbelt there was a realization that the waving fields of wheat were planted on lands stripped of their native ecosystems.
Everyone knew this because everyone spent a considerable part of each year toiling to clear the land. But the view tended to be that there was always more bush. Each bit of clearing was a merely local matter. Likewise, as rising salinity became directly associated with the clearing of native perennial vegetation, it was repeatedly explained away as a small, local, confined phenomenon.
But in the writing of Peter Cowan and that of the naturalist, Barbara York Main, the full picture of environmental destruction began to appear without the customary euphemism. It would be wrong to say that public opinion, particularly in the wheatbelt, changed decisively in the 1960s or even the 1970s. The cart-blanche denial, however, of environmental value — that the natural world of the wheatbelt had a value — became harder and harder to maintain.
By the 1980s, the wheatbelt had become uncanny. No longer the sign of the natural cycles of life replenishing the earth with seasonal regularity, but a vast and even repellent monocultural expanse. The wheatbelt was something profoundly unnatural in the eyes of writers like Elizabeth Jolley, Tom Flood and John Kinsella.
Of these, it has been Kinsella who has proved to be both durable and prolific. His poems, stories and other writings specify a wheatbelt that exists in strange cross-currents of science, tradition and avarice. The natural world is prised out of its familiar romantic categories and, in his remarkable work, exists in eerie counterpoise to the techno-scientific mania of modern agribusiness.
The central fact of the wheatbelt is radical disappearance. On one hand there was the destruction of the sovereign culture of the Noongar, custodians for millennia. Noongar people continue to practice and uphold their culture in spite of everything and the land continues to speak through them.
But on the other hand we must also contend with the fact that in the central wheatbelt shires, at least, only something like 7% of the natural vegetation (and the animal habitat it provides) remains. This, in a place that has a biodiversity as stunning as a rainforest canopy.
Literature cannot, in and of itself, make these losses good. A thousand novels cannot replace one extinct species. But in human terms there is hope. The Noongar language is being revitalized. And here literature certainly does have a role to play. Jack Davis used Noongar in his plays and provided his own glossaries. Kim Scott’s fiction, and occasional poetry, gives its readers Noongar — in fact teaches its readers Noongar and the deft sonics of a language adapted to country. And many of today’s farmers are now at the forefront of conservation initiative and Landcare groups.
The role, though, that I see for literature in coming to terms with the facts of the wheatbelt lies in its capacity to continuously disabuse us of the complacent certitudes by which we think we know the world. It need not require the experimental bravura of Kinsella’s postmodern verse to do this unsettling. Even the older writing does it in surprising ways.
What Dorothy Hewett and Jack Davis do within the broad parameters of theatrical realism nevertheless succeeds in unpicking the simple pouches we tend to pack our conceptions in. Barbara York Main’s natural histories throw open the dazzling singularity of wheatbelt life forms, and at the same time their intricate interconnections. Peter Cowan’s quietist studies of disillusioned loneliness, defamiliarises the wheatbelt just as certainly as Facey’s childhood glee at burning the bush to smouldering ashes.
It is not a particular kind of literature that gets to the “heart” of the wheatbelt. It is the fact that the wheatbelt falls into the prism of literature that allows us to see this place in terms other than the ones it gave itself via its animating dream of agricultural plenitude and generational continuity.
Creative writing is not blind to the natural or economic forces that determine the fate of the wheatbelt, but it will always approach the matter through the medium of human subjectivity. In this sense, it is only literature that allows us to see inside the wheatbelt that was created, geologically speaking, in the blink of an eye.
Do you wear runners, drink coffee or own a mobile phone? The chances are that these products cruised to you on a ship. In 2015, the global merchant fleet carried a record 10 billion tonnes of cargo, a 2.1% increase from the previous year.
However, while it’s an essential part of international trade, shipping also poses serious risks to the environment. Apart from damage caused by dredging shipping channels and the spread of marine pests around the world, there is also growing concern about pollution. According to a report from the European Union, international shipping contributes 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions annually. This is predicted to rise by between 50% and 250% by 2050.
As well as contributing to global warming, ship pollution includes toxic compounds and particles that cause a host of other health hazards. A 2016 Chinese-led study found the shipping boom in east Asia has caused tens of thousands of premature deaths a year, largely from heart and lung disease and cancer.
Commercial ships are designed to be used for a long time. As a result, their engines are typically older and less efficient than those used in many other industries, and replacing them is prohibitively expensive. But there are some immediate solutions to this problem that use existing technology: increasing fuel quality, treating engine emissions, and adopting other energy-conservation measures so that ships burn less fuel.
Improve fuel quality
When diesel ship engines burn poor-quality fuel, their smoke stacks release oxides of nitrogen and sulfur as well as carbon. These pollutants, as well as contributing to greenhouse warming, are highly toxic. Sulfur dioxide readily dissolves in water, creating acid rain that causes harm to both people and the environment.
Refinement of crude oil removes sulfur, which reduces the amount of sulfur dioxide produced when the fuel is burned. Higher-grade diesel also reduces the volume of heat-trapping nitrous oxide, but is more expensive to produce because it requires more purification at the refinery.
The International Maritime Organization, the UN body that regulates the safety and security of shipping, is planning to reduce the amount of sulfur allowed in fuel. However, it is currently considering whether the change will take place in 2020 or will be deferred to 2025.
Install exhaust scrubbers
Clean fuel is an important part of reducing emissions, but the higher cost of low-sulfur fuel will deter many companies. Another way for ships to meet clean-air requirements is by capturing engine exhaust and passing it through scrubbers. These scrubbers convert nitrous oxide gases into harmless nitrogen and water.
This process requires retrofitting older ships, and updating the design of new ship exhaust systems. One advantage of this approach is that it allows ships to meet the different pollution regulations around the world without having to swap fuels.
Another way to reduce production of nitrous oxide is by reducing the temperature at which diesel fuel burns, but this leads to decreased fuel efficiency and increased fuel consumption. Scrubbers are potentially a cheaper and more accessible option.
Reduce energy use overall
Ships don’t just burn diesel fuel to propel themselves through the water. Fuel also generates electricity so that people on board can do things like use computers and read at night.
They have also undertaken a temperature control initiative, where thermostats have been checked to ensure they are in proper working order and faulty parts in their water cooling systems replaced. Some ships have gone further, and installed stern flaps that modify the flow of water under the ship’s hull to reduce drag, thus increasing fuel efficiency.
All of this means the shipping industry can lower its fuel bill through conserving energy, and at the same time reduce its negative impacts on the health of humans and the planet. With more than 20,000 ships in the global fleet, these immediate solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other types of pollution will make a real difference.
So why hasn’t the world become much more environmentally sustainable despite decades of international agreements, national policies, state laws and local plans? This is the question that a team of researchers and I have tried to answer in a recent article.
We reviewed 94 studies of how sustainability policies had failed across every continent. These included case studies from both developed and developing countries, and ranged in scope from international to local initiatives.
Consider the following key environmental indicators. Since 1970:
Humanity’s ecological footprint has exceeded the Earth’s capacity and has risen to the point where 1.6 planets would be needed to provide resources sustainably.
The biodiversity index has fallen by more than 50% as the populations of other species continue to decline.
Greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change have almost doubled while the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent.
The world has lost more than 48% of tropical and sub-tropical forests.
The rate at which these indicators deteriorated was largely unchanged over the two decades either side of the Rio summit. Furthermore, humanity is fast approaching several environmental tipping points. If crossed, these could lead to irreversible changes.
If we allow average global temperatures to rise 2℃ above pre-industrial levels, for example, feedback mechanisms will kick in that lead to runaway climate change. We’re already halfway to this limit and could pass it in the next few decades.
What’s going wrong?
So what’s going wrong with sustainability initiatives? We found that three types of failure kept recurring: economic, political and communication.
The economic failures stem from the basic problem that environmentally damaging activities are financially rewarded. A forest is usually worth more money after it’s cut down – which is a particular problem for countries transitioning to a market-based economy.
Political failures happen when governments can’t or won’t implement effective policies. This is often because large extractive industries, like mining, are dominant players in an economy and see themselves as having the most to lose. This occurs in developed and developing countries, but the latter can face extra difficulties enforcing policies once they’re put in place.
Communication failures centre on poor consultation or community involvement in the policy process. Opposition then flourishes, sometimes based on a misunderstanding of the severity of the issue. It can also be fed by mistrust when communities see their concerns being overlooked.
Again, this happens around the world. A good example would be community resistance to changing water allocation systems in rural areas of Australia. In this situation, farmers were so opposed to the government buying back some of their water permits that copies of the policy were burned in the street.
These types of failure are mutually reinforcing. Poor communication of the benefits of sustainable development creates the belief that it always costs jobs and money. Businesses and communities then pressure politicians to avoid or water down environmentally friendly legislation.
The point of our paper was to discover why policies that promote sustainability have failed in order to improve future efforts. The challenge is immense and there’s a great deal at stake. Based on my previous research into the way economic, social and environmental goals can co-exist, I would go beyond our most recent paper to make the following proposals.
First, governments need to provide financial incentives to switch to eco-efficient production. Politicians need to have the courage to go well beyond current standards. Well-targeted interventions can create both carrot and stick, rewarding eco-friendly behaviour and imposing a cost on unsustainable activities.
Second, governments need to provide a viable transition pathway for industries that are doing the most damage. New environmental tax breaks and grants, for example, could allow businesses to remain profitable while changing their business model.
Finally, leaders from all sectors need to be convinced of both the seriousness of the declining state of the environment and that sustainable development is possible. Promoting positive case studies of successful green businesses would be a start.
There will of course be resistance to these changes. The policy battles will be hard fought, particularly in the current international political climate. We live in a world where the US president is rolling back climate policies while the Australian prime minister attacks renewable energy.
This is the eleventh article in our Contested Spaces series. These pieces look at the conflicting uses, expectations and norms that people bring to public spaces, the clashes that result and how we can resolve these.
When we think of coasts, we are likely to think about the great sandy beaches that have been the destination for many day trips and long weekends. At times these spaces have been sources of contestation, especially in areas of public access and codes of conduct. However, behind the sand dunes are other landscapes with deep histories of social conflict.
Moments from coastal pasts have had a major impact on how we see different coasts today. They feed into distinct ideals and ethics on place, especially in terms of how it is developed.
Noosa Heads versus Surfers Paradise
Noosa Heads is a prime example of this. Noosa’s history during colonisation includes a number of difficult stories to tell. Examples include the contentious tale of the rescue of Eliza Fraser, or the fate of the traditional owners, the Gubbi Gubbi people, at the hands of the colonial settlers and the native police.
Yet it was in the 1960s when modern conflict over land use really took shape in Noosa. A proposal by the developer T.M. Burke to build a resort at Alexandria Bay created a stir among locals. The local shire was set to build an access road around the headland, destroying well-trodden walking tracks.
A group led by local Arthur Harrold fought this proposal and formed the still-operating Noosa Parks Association. Thus began a long-standing fight against over-development, mining and other impediments to what residents saw as the natural beauty of the coast. This included the Cooloola Conflict and the now-famed resistance to high-rise development.
While there are elements of conservationism here to consider, these conflicts arose in a bid to keep Noosa low-key, with a slower mentality and authentic natural surrounds. Today, these ethics of authenticity are firmly embedded in planning regulation, illustrating the strength of local resistance past.
Noosa residents’ key fear in the 1960s and ’70s was losing their sense of place to the different ideals embodied in another coastal mecca, Surfers Paradise. Like Noosa, Surfers has a long history of conflict. Yet this place developed much differently due to several key factors.
Arguably, the significant turning point was in 1925 when Jim Cavill bought the then Elston Hotel and renamed it the “Surfers Paradise” hotel. Cavill and his wife proceeded to turn the coastal setting into something more than a place to bathe or surf.
Alongside the hotel, they built a zoo full of exotic animals that gave the place a peculiar flavor. Having been influenced by the American example of how to develop coasts, Cavill exhibited a desire to construct Surfers Paradise as an exotic international resort. However, due to the war in the Pacific, Surfers Paradise was restricted by building codes, frustrating locals who were eager to begin making the space bigger.
Shortly after the war, the codes eased and developers flocked to the “Golden Coast”. In the course of development, local leaders such as the progress association often came into conflict with governance.
In the example of parking meters, this led to the controversial meter maid scheme, which further established Surfers Paradise’s theme as an overtly transgressive and sexualised place.
Conflicts of a climate-changed future
In both spaces, conflicts have continued into contemporary times.
Recently, for instance, the fight against the proposed Southport Spit development has again drawn locals into conflict with authorities. Such fights against development continue up and down our coastlines. These are mostly driven by the desire to maintain a specific lifestyle and aesthetic appeal.
However, early critics of coastal development saw other concerns about coastal development. For instance, in 1879 a journalist for The Gympie Times, while contemplating the construction of Noosa and Tewantin, wondered about the location of the village and whether one day seawater might be running between you and your neighbour.
While we have different motivations for maintaining or developing our coastal places, we seem to neglect discussions about the risks of living so close to the ocean.
History has shown that several of our coastal meccas are already susceptible to significant damage from storms and cyclones. We scramble to rebuild following these events, but few debates are had about retreating away from the sea.
Already in the tropics, insurance premiums have caused a stir politically and in the media. In the future, though, we may need to consider to whether we have to redefine our relationship with coasts as they become more risky places to live.
You can find other pieces published in the series here.
Our backyards are home to many scuttling, slithering and scampering creatures, which are often the subject of fascination. But they can also play a key role in tracking the changes in the world around us – for science.
Science is a vital tool to monitor the world, but scientists can’t do it all alone. Ordinary citizens can help by getting involved in a citizen science project.
People are spending weekends with their friends and families learning more about their backyards and gathering data that would otherwise be inaccessible to scientists.
They’re helping to manage invasive species, tree death, diseases and animal health. And it’s a way to take responsibility for the environment, urban areas, farmland and the creatures that visit our gardens.
Here are just a few ways you can get involved too.
Birds in backyards
Bird feeders and water dispensers are a great way to monitor human interactions with wildlife. If you have them, you can see the effect they have on your garden. You may even get a visit from a threatened species.
This project, created by researchers at Deakin and Griffith universities, aims to find out how people influence bird numbers and species diversity, and to measure the impact of food and water provisions. The organisers are looking for volunteers.
Additionally, BirdLife Australia’s Birds in Backyards is a project that collects reports of backyard bird sightings for analysis through the data-collection site Birdata. The site also contains resources on bird-friendly gardening, a bird finder tool (for identifying that pesky bird), forums and events.
You may have heard the story of the bell miner (Manorina melanophrys), its feeding habits, aggressive behaviour and its association with a plant sickness known as eucalypt dieback.
The Bell Miner Colony Project, which I run, looks at the bell miners’ habitat choice and movements, and investigates whether they really cause dieback. The project, developed two years ago, looks to answer questions about bell miner distribution across the east coast of Australia, and helps with managing forests and gardens.
Most people either love or hate bell miners. I personally love them, so I want to find out what they are really doing on a species scale.
One colony lives in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens and another in the Melbourne Zoo, so they are easy to see and visit. They make a distinctive “tink” call throughout the day, which can be used to monitor density. If you have seen any, please report them.
If your area seems to be riddled with pests, Feral Scan is a website for surveying and identifying them. The data is compiled and plotted on a map to create a scanner for previous sightings.
Another website for reporting biodiversity sightings is the Atlas of Living Australia. Any species seen in your backyard or during your travels can be added to the searchable database of sightings from across the nation.
WomSAT maps and record wombats and wombat burrow locations. So if you’ve seen wombats running around, let them know.
There is also a call for volunteers in the ACT to help treat wombats with mange infections. Mange is a skin disease caused by mites, which leaves wombats itching until they scab. Volunteers help by applying treatments outside wombat burrows and monitoring the burrows with cameras.
For those of you who are not into animals, there is a project for detecting new and emerging weeds in Queensland.
Queensland Herbarium teaches weed identification and mapping skills so that you can send your weed specimens and accompanying data to them.
This helps scientists determine where weeds are, how they spread and the best process for large-scale management.
For almost all of its more than 2,500-year history, democracy has been thought of as an attribute of purely human societies. For most of that history democracy was generally reviled and excoriated; only in the late 20th century did it come to be widely celebrated, and indeed widely practised.
But now democracy seems to be on the skids. No countries are transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy anymore. Quite the reverse seems to be taking place, in countries as diverse as Russia, Turkey, the US, Poland, the Philippines and Hungary. The people once thought to be committed to democratic citizenship now all too often reveal themselves in a far less flattering light.
Today many people will happily vote for demagogues. They do not seem to care that these demagogues have no interest in the truth. Voters vent their prejudices, even if it will make them worse off – poor white Trump voters will be the first to suffer and perhaps die if Obamacare is abolished, while Brexit voters will be hurt by decline in the UK economy.
The quality of political communication is on a downward spiral as people retreat into their social media echo chambers. Truth gives way to truthiness, to use the word coined by American comedian Stephen Colbert. And, as Colbert pointed out last year, truthiness then gave way to Trumpiness, when even feeling something is true no longer matters – all that matters is the feeling.
Political identity determines what people believe: so a large proportion of Republicans in the US still believes Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born outside the country, even though they know it to be untrue.
The democratic virtues of trees
If people are starting to look much worse in democratic terms, trees are starting to look much better.
In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohleben explores the subtle ways in which trees communicate with each other to their mutual advantage. Acacia trees, for example, give off ethylene if giraffes start eating them, as a warning to other trees to start pumping toxins into their leaves to deter the giraffes.
Both plant and animal societies feature meaningful communication, as do ecosystems of multiple species. Underground fungal networks transmit chemical signals even between trees of different species.
Trees do not lie. They do not disseminate or believe fake news. Neither do they believe things that are manifestly false, or try to undermine and destabilise science with well-funded misinformation campaigns.
We can further explore the relative democratic virtues of trees and Trump by examining recent interest in sortition, or random selection of panels of citizens as an alternative to voting for political representatives. This is the way juries in criminal cases have long been selected, and we entrust them with some very important decisions.
We do this because we know that juries are good at listening, reflecting and weighing evidence. Which is precisely what elected politicians are bad at – even when they are good at making arguments. The solution is surely that we need more and better listening and reflection in government, perhaps through a randomly selected upper house to replace the Senate.
I used to think that sortition would be a bad way to select prime ministers or presidents. Now I am not so sure. There is probably about a 90% chance that a randomly selected US citizen would make a better president than Donald Trump. There is about a 40-50% chance that person would actually make a good president.
I would argue further that there is a 100% chance a randomly selected tree would make a better president than Trump.
Now, one might think that there is zero chance this tree would actually make a good president. But that is to take a human-centred, anthropocentric view of the matter. Things might look different from the point of view of trees, which work on a much longer time scale.
Pay heed to nature’s screams of pain
A post-truth political world yields the unexpected benefit of enabling re-assessment of the relative merits of human and non-human communication. And if we attend to the latter, we might find that nature is screaming in pain at what we humans are doing to it – and ultimately to ourselves, for we are ecologically embedded creatures.
Earth scientists now think we are entering a new epoch of the Anthropocene – an epoch of human-induced instability in the Earth system – which replaces the past 11,000 years or so of the unusually stable Holocene. As my colleague Will Steffen puts it, the Holocene is the only state of the Earth system we know for sure can support human civilisation.
We can no longer assume that the Earth system is fixed and forgiving. Climate change is just a foretaste of the catastrophes in store if we do not find a way to better listen to its screams, and act in response.
If we can listen better and reflect upon non-human communication, we might also do better in listening and reflecting upon communication with other humans.
In 1927, American philosopher John Dewey famously wrote that “the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy”. Today, we can see that one cure for the ailments of democracy is a more ecological democracy. Democracy now needs more trees and less Trump.