This article is part of a series on rebalancing the human–nature interactions that are central to the study and practice of ecological economics, which is the focus of the 2019 ANZSEE Conference in Melbourne later this month.
As environmental crises and the urgency to create ecological sustainability escalate, so does the importance of ecological economics. This applied, solutions-based field of studies is concerned with sustainability and development, rather than efficiency and growth. Also, given that cities account for 70-80% of global economic activity and associated resource use, emissions and waste, they are central to finding solutions to the challenge of sustainability.
Ecological economics recognises local to global environmental limits. It ranges from research for short-term policy and local challenges through to long-term visions of sustainable societies. Ecological economists also consider global issues such as carbon emissions, deforestation, overfishing and species extinctions.
In 1990, Daly co-founded the International Society of Ecological Economics (ISEE). It had three key principles:
the human economy is embedded in nature, and economic processes are actually biological, physical and chemical processes and transformations
ecological economics is a meeting place for researchers committed to environmental issues
ecological economics requires transdisciplinary work to describe economic processes in relation to physical reality.
Joshua Farley, who has worked with Daly, discusses some of these principles in an opening address to the Australia New Zealand Society of Ecological Economics (ANZSEE) conference at RMIT University later this month.
In a partnership program of several North American universities, Farley teaches Economics for the Anthropocene postgraduates. They apply ecological economics to “real-world environmental solutions”. Some will talk at the conference about their research.
ISEE co-founder Joan Martinez-Alier established the global Environmental Justice Atlas. Activists and scholars developed this online database of around 3,000 environmental justice conflicts. It provides open access to many and various ecological and economic value assessments.
Ecological economics partly developed from frustration with the narrowness of environmental and resource economics. These approaches apply mainstream economics to the environment. In doing so, they fail to incorporate critical environmental concerns that arise with inputs, outputs and waste.
In addition, ecological economists have a broader view about what “progress” is and how to measure it. Ecological econonomists are more sceptical about how much human-made capital improves on the benefits we get from nature. Critically, they ask: “How useful is it to put a monetary value on nature?”
Ecological economist Clive Hamiltondiscusses that question in the case of Coronation Hill in Kakadu National Park. He argues that market-based assessments such as “willingness to pay” favour market-based solutions. Similarly, Brian Coffeyhighlights the conundrum of monetising ecological values:
I would rather ask “why is nature important?” and “how can we live with, and within, it?”
Despite this, certain ecological economists use monetary data to make powerful ecological statements. For instance, Ida Kubiszewski and her co-authors surveyed land uses under different future scenarios. They concluded that continuing business as usual could wipe out a third of the value of Asia-Pacific ecosystems by 2050.
In short, ecological economics has contributors from diverse disciplinary and professional backgrounds.
Presenters to the ANZSEE conference of course include ecologists and economists. But there are also social and physical scientists, sociologists, philosophers, historians, planners and sustainability experts.
The government has the activist group Market Forces squarely in its sights as it considers ways to stop environmental organisations persuading financial and other businesses to boycott companies in the mining sector.
It is also targeting funders of class actions, in its proposed crackdown on those running climate change campaigns that hit firms.
Attorney-General Christian Porter singled out Market Forces in a Monday statement that said he was co-ordinating advice across several portfolios on what could be done to protect resource businesses from such activism.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday condemned “an escalating trend towards a new form of secondary boycotts” which had potentially serious economic consequences, especially for regional economies.
“Environmental groups are targeting businesses and firms who provide goods or services to firms they don’t like, especially in the resources sector,” Morrison told the Queensland Resources Council.
Market Forces was launched in 2013, and is affiliated with Friends of the Earth. The organisation’s website says it “exposes” institutions, such as banks, superannuation funds and governments that are financing environmentally destructive projects.
Market Forces has lobbied heavily against Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine in central Queensland. Its website lists the companies it says have links to the project, and asks supporters to contact those companies to demand they cut ties.
The organisation’s chief executive Julien Vincent hit back at the government on Monday, saying that where it saw something it did not like “its response is to get it shut down”.
“We simply allow people to make informed decisions on who they do business with,” Vincent said.
“That’s a right that we thought, until recently, that this government was prepared to uphold”.
But Porter said it was “simply not OK” for any Australian business to be targeted by groups seeking to do it financial harm “when all they are doing is working in an industry like mining and resources that a small number of domestic and international activists have an ideological objection to.
“There are a growing number of examples where we have seen radical activist groups like Market Forces that try and impose their political will on companies across the country through widespread, co-ordinated harassment and threats of boycotts,” he said.
The government was looking at multiple options, across portfolios, Porter said, and the work would be prepared urgently.
The government was also considering regulatory action against “the growing presence of litigation funders who are receiving disproportionately large shares of payments in class action litigation which is becoming increasingly politicised by a focus on companies that operate in the mining and resources sector”.
Casting the net even wider, Porter said the government would consider other areas of activists’ “lawfare” which was “designed to delay, frustrate and cause unnecessary expense to mining and other legitimate commercial projects and businesses”.
Secondary boycotts are already outlawed under the competition and consumer legislation but there is an exemption where the dominant reason is for environmental or consumer protection.
An obvious course for the government would be to seek to remove the exemption.
Another option would be to remove the tax deductibility status of groups.
Labor has accused Morrison of “virtue signalling” in his planned attack on activist groups.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley yesterday announced a ten-yearly review of Australia’s national environmental laws. It could not come at a more critical time, as the environment struggles under unprecedented development pressures, climate change impacts and a crippling drought.
The laws, formally known as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, have been in place for 20 years.
The review should ensure Australia’s environmental law achieves what it was designed to do – protect our precious natural places.
The list below reflects the EPBC Act priorities of 70 environmental lawyers and practitioners who were polled by the National Environmental Law Association. Collectively, they have more than 500 years experience of the Act’s operation.
1. Independent decisions with clear criteria
Under the laws, proponents of activities likely to have big impacts on so-called “matters of national environmental significance” must get federal approval. The minister or a representative makes this decision and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, grants approval.
This approval power should be vested in an independent body to take the politics out of decisions. Criteria for deciding on approvals should be clearer, including thresholds for when applications must be refused on environmental grounds.
2. Take stock of cumulative impacts
A search of the EPBC Act will not find any reference to cumulative impacts, or the need to consider whether approval of one proposal is likely to lead to a raft of new projects being proposed. There is little scope to consider cumulative impacts that might happen in future — only when a new proposal constitutes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The Act must do better at considering both how proposed activities and future plans will interact, and the background processes of environmental change and decline.
3. Provide funds for proper enforcement
Improving the content of the Act is one thing, but monitoring, compliance and enforcement are critical. There is little point imposing tough conditions if no one is there to ensure they are met. This demands an ongoing sustainable funding base that is not dependent on political budget priorities.
4. Better data and transparency
Access to information about environmental decisions is essential for good governance. Not all documents and decisions are publicly available. It is very difficult to track down detailed aspects of approval conditions – for example, the detail of the groundwater management and monitoring plan for the Adani coal mine. This is especially important when the department’s capacity to oversee compliance is so constrained.
The Act should consider the need for public registers of all documents and data collected as part of decision-making and monitoring processes, including decisions, approvals, conditions, offset locations, compliance reports and monitoring data.
5. Expand scope of national environmental impact assessment
Commonwealth involvement in environmental approvals is limited to specific “matters of national environmental significance”. Land clearing and climate change are not included in the list of such matters, and are usually considered under state laws.
This means activities that may damage native vegetation or lead to rising emissions are only scrutinised under federal law if they might affect other things, such as threatened species or world heritage places.
Also, the Act only seeks to protect water resources when the proposed project is a large coal mine or coal seam gas venture. New triggers are needed to require federal assessment and approval for all activities that might significantly affect water, native vegetation and climate change.
6. Deal with land clearing
Habitat loss is recognised as the primary driver of species decline in Australia. Rates of land clearing have increased dramatically in recent years, despite the operation of the Act.
Stronger protections are needed. These must prevent further clearing of vegetation types that are not adequately conserved in Australia’s system of protected natural areas. In cases where a proponent plans to offset damage caused by their project by restoring land elsewhere, construction should be delayed until work has begun on the restoration project and conservation benefits are occurring.
7. Make strategic assessments truly strategic
Conservation planning and environmental assessment are complex. Major new initiatives can involve interacting influences and trade-offs. The Act’s so-called “strategic assessment” process to some extent accounts for this — for example it might consider development plans across a region, rather than project-by-project.
But strategic planning must occur for a wider range of activities that may have long-term impacts on conservation: for example, the Tasmanian government’s desire to open up the Tarkine region to further mining. The planning must also better consider spatial conflicts and account for future change.
This list is just the tip of the law reform iceberg, but addressing these priorities would be a good start. With only one environmental law expert and no environmental scientist on the newly announced panel, it remains to be seen how these priorities will be addressed, if at all.
Recently, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published a global assessment of biodiversity that set out alarming statistics: a million species at threat of extinction, 75% of terrestrial environments severely altered by human activity, and a 30% reduction in global habitat integrity.
Despite all this, practical solutions to redress an ecological crisis — land use and economic reform, action on climate change and improvements to environmental governance — are not prioritised. One key reason for this is how we frame our relationship to the living world.
Our prevailing relationship with nature is instrumental – that is, we predominantly frame the living world as a set of natural resources, apart from humans, for our privileged use.
Such framing is so deeply embedded, and our material dependence on nature so total, that it can seem strange even to question the idea of nature as natural resource. In Western nations, this position has deep philosophical and religious roots.
My latest book, The Imagination of Plants, highlights the role of the creation story in Genesis and the philosophy of Aristotle in rendering plants, the living beings that make up the visible bulk of most terrestrial ecosystems, as existing for the sake of animals, and both for the sake of humans.
Such accounts have powerfully shaped a human-centred, utility-based worldview that has silenced the needs of plants and animals. They form the philosophical basis of our claims to “own” other species.
If plants and animals exist for the sake of humans, why take action to conserve them when they’re not useful? Why care when their numbers are going down, as long as we can still get what we materially need from them?
Conservation concepts and strategies that place the living world within this frame, including ideas of natural capital, ecosystem services and the protection of the living world for our enlightened self-interest, are destined to fail because they do not address this underlying framing. Indeed, as researchers have pointed out, by not addressing such framing they perpetuate the very drivers of biodiversity loss.
Environmental thinkers have warned for decades that such a view of nature is at the root of our ecological crisis. More recent research has argued against this instrumental view, criticising its value as a basis for conservation action.
Since the 1980s, discussions of the intrinsic value of nature – “valuing it for what it is, not only what it does” – have happened across a number of environmental disciplines. This led to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), founded on the cornerstone of the intrinsic value of biological diversity.
In some countries, such as New Zealand, the concept of intrinsic value appears in major pieces of resource management and conservation legislation. It has been instrumental in recent legal battles over land use.
But the concept of intrinsic value does not demand a move away from a dominant use-based frame. In the preamble of the CBD itself, intrinsic values sit alongside a raft of use-based values, including economic, scientific, educational, cultural and aesthetic values. The power of the use-based frame dominates the concept of intrinsic value.
All our relations
There is an alternative to the dichotomy of a purely instrumental relationship and the concept of intrinsic value.
In many Indigenous cultures, such relationships are built on fundamental kinship with the living world, a kinship that actually blurs and subverts the very concepts of nature and culture.
Kinship offers a way of connecting to nature that acknowledges our need to use plants and animals, but constructs relationships beyond use. Where the concept of intrinsic value can be difficult to engage with, kinship relationships naturally extend to care, respect and responsibility.
Framing nature in terms of kinship can motivate people to care and make the loss of the living world real for people. Ever since Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, science has known of our fundamental kinship with nature. Yet we don’t frame (or live with) nature in a way that honours this.
A recent example gives me hope. At the school climate strike, a young Brazilian Indigenous woman addressed a crowd in New York, speaking in terms of kinship about the human children of a mother Earth, fighting to save their mother from destruction. Framing nature in terms of kinship noticeably energised the crowd of young people.
The challenge to reframe the living world in terms of kinship is massive. A good step would be to convene a human-nature kinship platform as a way of influencing the UN Biodiversity Conference in China next year. Another step could be to enshrine our fundamental kinship with other species in all major environmental governance frameworks, including the CBD and national environmental legislation.
Both could provide the springboard for us to undergo the hard work of talking about, and living with, other species in ways that acknowledge them as our earthly relations.
Many of us joined the Global Climate Strike on Friday, 20 September, and together we constituted half a million Australians gathering peacefully and walking the streets of our cities and towns to protest at government inaction in the face of the gravest threat human civilisation has faced.
It was a global strike, but its Australian manifestation had a particular twist, for our own federal government is an international pariah on this issue. We have become the Ugly Australians, led by brazen climate deniers who trash the science and snub the UN Climate Summit.
Government politicians in Canberra constantly tell us the Great Barrier Reef is fine, coal is good for humanity, Pacific islands are floating not being flooded, wind turbines are obscene, power blackouts are due to renewables, “drought-proofing” is urgent but “climate-change” has nothing to do with it, science is a conspiracy, climate protesters are a “scourge” who deserve to be punished and jailed, the ABC spins the weather, the Bureau of Meteorology requires a royal commission, the United Nations is a bully, if we have to have emissions targets, well, we are exceeding them, and Australia is so insignificant in the world it doesn’t have to act anyway.
It’s a wilful barrage of lies, an insult to the public, a threat to civil society, and an extraordinary attack on our intelligence by our own elected representatives.
The international Schools4Climate movement is remarkable because it is led by children, teenagers still at school advocating a future they hope to have. I can’t think of another popular protest movement in world history led by children. This could be a transformative moment in global politics; it certainly needs to be. The active presence of so many engaged children gave the rally a spirit and a lightness in spite of its grim subject; there was a sense of fun, a family feeling about the occasion, but there was a steely resolve too.
A girl in a school uniform standing next to me at the rally held a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 in her hands. Many of the people around me would normally expect to see in the 22nd century. Their power, paradoxically, is they are not voters. They didn’t elect this government! They are protesting not just against the governments of the world but also against us adults, who did elect these politicians or who abide them. There was a moment at the rally when, with the mysterious organic coherence crowds possess, the older protesters stepped aside, parting like a wave, and formed a guard of honour through the centre of which the children marched holding their placards, their leadership acknowledged.
One placard declared: “You’ll die of old age; I’ll die of climate change”; another said: “If Earth were cool, I’d be in school.” One held up a large School Report Card with subject results: “Ethics X, Responsibility X, Climate Action X. Needs to try harder.” Another explained: “You skip summits, we skip school.”
In Melbourne, as elsewhere, teenagers gave the speeches; and they were passionate and eloquent. The demands of the movement are threefold: no new coal, oil and gas projects; 100% renewable energy generation and exports by 2030; and fund a just transition and job creation for all fossil-fuel workers and communities. There were also Indigenous speakers. One declared: “We stand for you too, when we stand for Country.”
There were 150,000 people in the Melbourne Treasury Gardens, a crowd so large responsive cheers rippled like a Mexican wave up the hill from the speakers. I reflected on the historical parallels for what was unfolding, recalling the Vietnam moratorium demonstrations and the marches against the first Gulf War, the Freedom Rides and the civil rights movement, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and the suffragettes’ campaigns.
Inspired by this history, we now have the Extinction Rebellion, a movement born in a small British town late last year which declares “only non-violent rebellion can now stop climate breakdown and social collapse”. Within six months, through civil disobedience, it brought central London to a standstill and the United Kingdom became the first country to declare a climate emergency. We are at a political tipping point.
In Australia, the result of this year’s election tells us there is no accountability for probably the most dysfunctional and discredited federal government in our history, and now we are left with a parliament unwilling to act on so many vital national and international issues. The 2019 federal election was no status quo outcome, as some political commentators have declared. Rather, it was a radical result, revealing deep structural flaws in our parliamentary democracy, our media culture and our political discourse. For me it ranks with two other elections in my voting lifetime: the “dark victory” of the 2001 Tampa election, and the 1975 constitutional crisis. Like those earlier dates, 2019 could shape and shadow a generation. It is time to get out on the streets again.
Skolstrejk för klimatet
The founder, symbol and the voice of the School Strike movement is, of course, Greta Thunberg. It is just over a year since August 2018 when she began to spend every Friday away from class sitting outside the Swedish parliament with a handmade sign declaring “School Strike for the Climate”.
When she told her parents about her plans, she reported “they weren’t very fond of it”. Addressing the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2018, she said: “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to your children.” Thunberg quietly invokes the carbon budget and the galling fact there is already so much carbon in the system “there is simply not enough time to wait for us to grow up and become the ones in charge.”
In late September, Thunberg gave a powerful presentation at the UN Climate Summit; Richard Flanagan compared her 495-word UN speech to Abraham Lincoln’s 273-word Gettysburg Address. It’s a reasonable parallel that reaches for some understanding of the enormity of this political moment.
It is sickening to see the speed with which privileged old white men have rushed to pour bile on this young woman. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin quickly recognised her power and sought to neutralise and patronise her. Scott Morrison chimed in. Australia’s locker room of shock jocks laced the criticism with some misogyny. It’s amazing how they froth at the mouth about a calm and articulate schoolgirl. They are all – directly or indirectly – in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry.
Denialism is worthy of study. I don’t mean the conscious and fraudulent denialism of politicians and shock-jocks such as those I’ve mentioned. That’s pretty simple stuff – lies motivated by opportunism, greed and personal advancement, and funded by the carbon-polluting industries. It is appalling but boring.
There are more interesting forms of denialism, such as the emotional denialism we all inhabit. Emotional denialism in the face of the unthinkable can take many forms – avoidance, hope, anxiety, even a kind of torpor when people truly begin to understand what will happen to the world of their grandchildren. We are all prone to this willing blindness and comforting self-delusion. Overcoming that is our greatest challenge.
And there is a third kind of denialism that should especially interest scholars. It is when some of our own kind – scholars trained to respect evidence – fashion themselves as sceptics, but are actually dogged contrarians.
One example is Niall Ferguson, a Scottish historian and professor of history at Harvard University, who calls climate science “science fiction” and recently joined the ranks of old, white, privileged men commenting on the appearance of Greta Thunberg. I’m not arguing here with Ferguson’s politics – he is an arch-conservative and I do disagree with his politics, but I also believe engaged, reflective politics can drive good history.
Rather, Ferguson’s disregard for evidence and neglect of science and scholarship attracts my attention. His understanding of climate science and climate history is poor: in a recent article in the Boston Globe he assumed the Little Ice Age started in the 17th century, whereas its beginning was three centuries earlier.
How does a trained scholar, a professor of history, get themselves in this ignominious position? For Ferguson, contrarianism has been a productive intellectual strategy – going against the flow of fashion is a good scholarly instinct – but on climate change his politics and the truth have steadily travelled in different directions and caught him out. We can say the same of Geoffrey Blainey, another successful contrarian who has cornered himself on climate change. Like Ferguson he appears uninterested in decades of significant research in environmental history – and thus his healthy scepticism has morphed into foolish denialism.
Denialism matters because all kinds of it have delayed our global political response to climate change by 30 years. In those critical decades since the 1980s, when humans first understood the urgency of the climate crisis, total historical carbon emissions since the industrial revolution have doubled. And still global emissions are rising, every year.
The physics of this process are inexorable – and so simple, as Greta would say, even a child can understand. We are already committing ourselves to two degrees of warming, possibly three or four. Denialists have, knowingly and with malice aforethought, condemned future generations to what Tim Flannery calls a “grim winnowing”. Flannery wrote recently “the climate crisis has now grown so severe that the actions of the denialists have turned predatory: they are now an immediate threat to our children.”
The history of denialism alerts us to a disastrous paradox: the very moment, in the 1980s, when it became clear global warming was a collective predicament of humanity, we turned away politically from the idea of the collective, with dire consequences. Naomi Klein, in her latest book On Fire, elucidates this fateful coincidence, which she calls “an epic case of historical bad timing”: just as the urgency of action on climate change became apparent, “the global neoliberal revolution went supernova”.
Unfettered free-market fanaticism and its relentless attack on the public sphere derailed the momentum building for corporate regulation and global cooperation. Ten years ago, thoughtful, informed climate activists could still argue that we can decouple the debates about economy and democracy from climate action. But now we can’t. At the 2019 election, Australia may have missed its last chance for incremental political change. If the far right had not politicised climate change and delayed action for so long then radical political transformation would not necessarily have been required. But now it will be, and it’s coming.
A great derangement
We are indeed living in what we might call “uncanny times”. They are weird, strange and unsettling in ways that question nature and culture and even the possibility of distinguishing between them.
The Bengali novelist Amitav Ghosh uses the term “uncanny” in his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, published in 2016. The planet is alive, says Ghosh, and only for the last three centuries have we forgotten that. We have been suffering from “the great derangement”, a disturbing condition of wilful and systematic blindness to the consequences of our own actions, in which we are knowingly killing the planetary systems that support the survival of our species. That’s what’s uncanny about our times: we are half-aware of this predicament yet also paralysed by it, caught between horror and hubris.
We inhabit a critical moment in the history of the Earth and of life on this planet, and a most unusual one in terms of our own human history. We have developed two powerful metaphors for making sense of it. One is the idea of the Anthropocene, which is the insight we have entered a new geological epoch in the history of the Earth and have now left behind the 13,000 years of the relatively stable Holocene epoch, the period since the last great ice age. The new epoch recognises the power of humans in changing the nature of the planet, putting us on a par with other geophysical forces such as variations in the earth’s orbit, glaciers, volcanoes and asteroid strikes.
The other potent metaphor for this moment in Earth history is the Sixth Extinction. Humans have wiped out about two-thirds of the world’s wildlife in just the last half-century.
Let that sentence sink in. It has happened in less than a human lifetime. The current extinction rate is a hundred to a thousand times higher than was normal in nature. There have been other such catastrophic collapses in the diversity of life on Earth: five of them – sudden, shocking falls in the graph of biodiversity separated by tens of millions of years, the last one in the immediate aftermath of the asteroid impact that ended the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We now have to ask ourselves: are we inhabiting – and causing – the Sixth Extinction?
These two metaphors – the Anthropocene and the Sixth Extinction – are both historical concepts that require us to travel in geological and biological time across hundreds of millions of years and then to arrive back at the present with a sense not of continuity but of discontinuity, of profound rupture. That’s what Earth system science has revealed: it’s now too late to go back to the Holocene. We’ve irrevocably changed the Earth system and unwittingly steered the planet into the Anthropocene; now we can’t take our hand off the tiller.
Earth is alive
I’ve been considering metaphors of deep time, but what of deep space? It has also enlarged our imaginations in the last half century. In July this year, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. I was 12 at the time of the Apollo 11 voyage and found myself in a school debate about whether the money for the Moon mission would be better spent on Earth. I argued it would be, and my team lost.
But what other result was allowable in July 1969? Conquering the Moon, declared Dr Wernher von Braun, Nazi scientist turned US rocket maestro, assured man of immortality. I followed the Apollo missions with a sense of wonder, staying up late to watch the Saturn V launch, joining my schoolmates in a large hall with tiny televisions to witness Armstrong take his Giant Leap, and saving full editions of The Age newspaper reporting those fabled days.
The rhetoric of space exploration was so future-oriented that NASA did not foresee Apollo’s greatest legacy: the radical effect of seeing the Earth. In 1968, the historic Apollo 8 mission launched humans beyond Earth’s orbit for the first time, into the gravitational power of another heavenly body. For three lunar orbits, the three astronauts studied the strange, desolate, cratered surface below them and then, as they came out from the dark side of the Moon for the fourth time, they looked up and gasped:
Frank Borman: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that is pretty!
Bill Anders: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.
They did take the unscheduled photo, excitedly, and it became famous, perhaps the most famous photograph of the 20th century, the blue planet floating alone, finite and vulnerable in space above a dead lunar landscape. Bill Anders declared: “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
In his fascinating book, Earthrise (2010), British historian Robert Poole explains this was not supposed to happen. The cutting edge of the future was to be in space. Leaving the Earth’s atmosphere was seen as a stage in human evolution comparable to our amphibian ancestor crawling out of the primeval slime onto land.
Furthermore, this new dominion was seen to offer what Neil Armstrong called a “survival possibility” for a world shadowed by the nuclear arms race. In the words of Buzz Lightyear (who is sometimes hilariously confused with Buzz Aldrin), the space age looked to infinity and beyond!
Earthrise had a profound impact on environmental politics and sensibilities. Within a few years, the American scientist James Lovelock put forward “the Gaia hypothesis”: that the Earth is a single, self-regulating organism. In the year of the Apollo 8 mission, Paul Ehrlich published his book, The Population Bomb, an urgent appraisal of a finite Earth. British economist Barbara Ward wrote Spaceship Earth and Only One Earth, revealing how economics failed to account for environmental damage and degradation, and arguing that exponential growth could not continue forever.
Earth Day was established in 1970, a day to honour the planet as a whole, a total environment needing protection. In 1972, the Club of Rome released its controversial and influential report The Limits to Growth, which sold over 13 million copies. In their report, Donella Meadows and Dennis Meadows wrestled with the contradiction of trying to force infinite material growth on a finite planet. The cover of their book depicted a whole Earth, a shrinking Earth.
Earth systems science developed in the second half of the 20th century and fostered a keen understanding of planetary boundaries – thresholds in planetary ecology – and the extent to which they were being violated. The same industrial capitalism that unleashed carbon enabled us to extract ice cores from the poles and construct a deep history of the air. The fossil fuels that got humans to the Moon, it now emerged, were endangering our civilisation.
The American ecologist and conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in 1949 of the need for a new “land ethic”. Leopold envisaged a gradual historical expansion of human ethics, from the relations between individuals to those between the individual and society, and ultimately to those between humans and the land. He hoped for an enlargement of the community to which we imagine ourselves belonging, one that includes soil, water, plants and animals.
In his book of essays, A Sand County Almanac, there is a short, profound reflection called “Thinking like a mountain.” He tells of going on the mountain and shooting a wolf and her cubs and then watching “a fierce green fire” die in her eyes.
He shot her because he thought fewer wolves meant more deer, but over the years he watched the overpopulated deer herd die as the wolfless mountain became a dustbowl. Leopold came to understand the beautiful delicacy of the ecosystem, which holds “a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”
Today, 70 years after Leopold’s philosophical leap, we are being challenged to scale up from a land ethic to an earth ethic, to an environmental vision and philosophy of action that sees the planet as an integrated whole and all of life upon it as an interdependent historical community with a common destiny, to think not only like a mountain, but also like a planet. We are belatedly remembering the planet is alive.
Climate science is climate history
Climate change and ecological crisis are often seen as purely scientific issues. But as humanities scholars we know all environmental problems are at heart human ones; “scientific” issues are pre-eminently challenges for the humanities. Historical perspective can offer much in this time of ecological crisis, and many historians are reinventing their traditional scales of space and time to tell different kinds of stories, ones that recognise the agency of other creatures and the unruly power of nature.
There is a tendency among denialists to lazily use history against climate science, arguing for example “the climate’s always changing”, or “this has happened before”. Good recent historical scholarship about the last 2000 years of human civilisation is so important because it corrects these misunderstandings. That’s why it’s so disappointing when celebrity historians like Niall Ferguson and Geoffrey Blainey seek to represent their discipline by ignoring the work of their colleagues.
Climate science is unavoidably climate history; it’s an empirical, historical interpretation of life on earth, full of new insights into the impact and predicament of humanity in the long and short term. Recent histories of the last 2,000 years have been crucial in helping us to appreciate the fragile relationship between climate and society, and why future average temperature changes of more than 2℃ can have dire consequences for human civilisation.
We now have environmental histories of antiquity, and of medieval and early modern Europe – studies casting new light on familiar human dramas, including the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the Black Death in the medieval period, and the unholy trinity of famine, war and disease during the Little Ice Age of the 17th century.
These books draw on natural as well as human history, on the archives of ice, air and sediment as well as bones, artefacts and documents. And then there is John McNeill’s history of the 20th century, Something New Under the Sun, which argues “the human race, without intending anything of the sort, has undertaken a gigantic uncontrolled experiment on earth”.
These new histories encompass the planet and the human species, and provocatively blur biological evolution and cultural history (Yuval Noah Harari’s “brief history of humankind”, Sapiens, is a bestselling example). They investigate the vast elemental nature of the heavens as well as the interior, microbial nature of human bodies: nature inside and out, with the striving human as a porous vessel for its agency.
Australians seem predisposed to navigate the Anthropocene. I think it’s because the challenge of Australian history in the 21st century is how to negotiate the rupture of 1788, how to relate geological and human scales, how to get our heads and hearts around a colonial history of 200 years that plays out across a vast Indigenous history in deep time.
From the beginnings of colonisation, Australia’s new arrivals commonly alleged Aboriginal people had no history, had been here no more than a few thousand years, and were caught in the fatal thrall of a continental museum. But from the early 1960s, archaeologists confirmed what Aboriginal people had always known: Australia’s human history went back aeons, into the Pleistocene, well into the last ice age. In the late 20th century, the timescale of Australia’s human history increased tenfold in just 30 years and the journey to the other side of the frontier became a journey back into deep time.
It’s no wonder the idea of big history was born here, or environmental history has been so innovative here. This is a land of a radically different ecology, where climatic variation and uncertainty have long been the norm – and are now intensifying. Australia’s long human history spans great climatic change and also offers a parable of cultural resilience.
Even the best northern-hemisphere scholars struggle to digest the implications of the Australian time revolution. They often assume, for example, “civilisation” is a term associated only with agriculture, and still insist 50,000 years is a possible horizon for modern humanity. Australia offers a distinctive and remarkable human saga for a world trying to come to terms with climate change and the rupture of the Anthropocene. Living on a precipice of deep time has become, I think, an exhilarating dimension of what it means to be Australian. Our nation’s obligation to honour the Uluru Statement is not just political; it is also metaphysical. It respects another ethical practice and another way of knowing.
In 2003, in its second issue, Griffith Review put the land at the centre of the nation. The edition was called Dreams of Land and it’s full of gold, including an essay by Ian Lowe sounding the alarm on the ecological and climate emergency – which reminds us how long we’ve had these eloquent warnings. As Graeme Davison said on launching the edition in December 2003:
At the threshold of the 21st century Australia has suddenly come down to earth. […] Earth, water, wind and fire are not just natural elements; they are increasingly the great issues of the day.
It is instructive to compare this issue of the Griffith Review, with the edition entitled Writing the Country, published 15 years later last summer. In the intervening decade and a half, sustainability morphed into survival, native title into Treaty and the Voice, the Anthropocene infiltrated our common vocabulary, the republic and Aboriginal recognition are no longer separable, and land decisively became Country with a capital “C”. In 2003 the reform hopes of the 1990s had not entirely died, but by 2019 it’s clear the dead hand of the Howard government and its successors has thoroughly throttled trust in the workings of the state.
Perhaps the most powerful contribution in GR2 – and it was given the honour of appearing first – was an essay by Melissa Lucashenko called “Not quite white in the head”. This year’s Miles Franklin winner, Lucashenko was already in great form in 2003. Tough, poetic and confronting, the words of her essay still resonate. Lucashenko writes of “earthspeaking”.
“I am earthspeaking,” she says, “talking about this place, my home and it is first, a very small story […] This earthspeaking is a small, quiet story in a human mouth.”
“Big stories are failing us as a nation,” suggests Lucashenko. “But we are citizens and inheritors and custodians of tiny landscapes too. It is the small stories that attach to these places […] which might help us find a way through.”
I think earthspeaking is a companion to thinking like a planet. Instead of beginning from the outside with a view of Earth in deep space and deep time, earthspeaking works from the ground up; it is inside-out; it begins with beloved Country. So it is with earthspeaking I want to finish.
Four months ago I was privileged to sit in a circle with Mithaka people, the traditional Aboriginal owners of 33,000 square kilometres of the Kirrenderi/Channel Country of the Lake Eyre Basin in south-western Queensland. In 2015, the Federal Court handed down a native title consent determination for the Mithaka enabling them to return to Country. Now they have begun a process of assessing and renewing their knowledge.
I was invited to be involved because I have studied the major white writer about this region, a woman called Alice Duncan-Kemp who was born on this land in 1901 where her family ran a cattle farm, and grew up with Mithaka people who worked on the station and were her carers and teachers. Young Alice spent her childhood days with her Aboriginal friends and teachers, especially Mary Ann and Moses Youlpee, who took her on walks and taught her the names and meanings and stories that connected every tree, bird, plant, animal, rock, dune and channel.
From the 1930s to the 1960s Alice wrote four books – half a million words – about the world of her childhood and the people and nature of the Channel Country, and although she did find a wide readership, her books were dismissed by authorities, landowners and locals as “romantic” and “nostalgic” and “fictional”.
Her writing was systematically marginalised: she was a woman in cattle country, a sympathiser with Aboriginal people, she refused to ignore the violence of the frontier and she challenged the typical heroic western style of narrative. The huge Kidman pastoral company bought her family’s land in 1998, bulldozed the historic pisé homestead into the creek, threw out the collection of Aboriginal artefacts, and continues to deny Alice’s writings have any historical authenticity. Yet her books were respected in the native title process and were crucial to the Mithaka in their fight to regain access to Country.
It was very moving to be present this year when Alice’s descendants and Moses’ people met for the first time. It was not just a social and symbolic occasion: we had come together as researchers and we had work to do. Across a weekend we pored over maps and talked through evidence, combining legend, memory, oral history, letters and manuscripts, published books, archaeological studies, surveyors’ records, and even recent drone footage of the remote terrain, all with the purpose of retrieving and reactivating knowledge, recovering language and reanimating Country. We could literally map Alice’s stories back onto features of the land, with the aim of bringing it under caring attention again.
This process is going on in beloved places right across the continent. Grace Karskens and Kim Mahood write beautifully in GR63 about similar quests, and of their hope written words dredged from the archive “might again be spoken as part of living language and shared geographies.”
Earthspeaking and thinking like a planet are profoundly linked. As the Indigenous speaker at the Melbourne Climate Strike said, “We stand for you when we stand for Country.” In these frightening and challenging times, we need radical storytelling and scholarly histories, narratives that weave together humans and nature, history and natural history, that move from Earth systems to the earth beneath our feet, from the lonely, living planet spinning through space to the intimately known and beloved local worlds over which we might, if we are lucky, exert some benevolent influence.
We need them not only because they help us to better understand our predicament, but also because they might enable us to act, with intelligence and grace.
This essay was adapted from the Showcase Lecture, Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Queensland, Wednesday, 9 October 2019
Threatened species habitat larger than the size of Tasmania has been destroyed since Australia’s environment laws were enacted, and 93% of this habitat loss was not referred to the federal government for scrutiny, our new research shows.
Some 85% of land-based threatened species experienced habitat loss. The iconic koala was among the worst affected. More than 90% of habitat loss was not referred or submitted for assessment, despite a requirement to do so under Commonwealth environment laws.
Our research indicates the legislation has comprehensively failed to safeguard Australia’s globally significant natural values, and must urgently be reformed and enforced.
What are the laws supposed to do?
The EPBC Act was enacted in 1999 to protect the diversity of Australia’s unique, and increasingly threatened, flora and fauna. It was considered a giant step forward for biodiversity conservation and was expected to become an important legacy of the Howard Coalition government.
The law aims to conserve so-called “protected matters” such as threatened species, migratory species, and threatened ecosystems.
Clearing and land use change is regarded by ecologists as the primary threat to Australia’s biodiversity. In Queensland, land clearing to create pasture is the greatest pressure on threatened flora and fauna.
Any action which could have a significant impact on protected matters, including habitat destruction through land clearing, must be referred to the federal government for assessment.
The law is not being followed
We examined federal government forest and woodland maps derived from satellite imagery. The analysis showed that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been cleared or destroyed since the legislation was enacted.
Of this area, 93% was not referred to the federal government and so was neither assessed nor approved.
It is unclear why people or companies are not referring habitat destruction on such a large scale. People may be self-assessing their activities and concluding they will not have a significant impact.
Others may be seeking to avoid the expense of a referral, which costs A$6,577 for people or companies with a turnover of more than A$10 million a year.
Our research found that 1,390 (85%) of terrestrial threatened species experienced habitat loss within their range since the EPBC Act was introduced.
Among the top ten species to lose the most area were the red goshawk, the ghost bat, and the koala, losing 3 million, 2.9 million, and 1 million hectares, respectively.
In less than two decades, many other imperilled species have lost large chunks of their potential habitat. They include the Mount Cooper striped skink (25%), the Keighery’s macarthuria (23%) and the Southern black-throated finch (10%).
What’s working, what’s not
We found that almost all referrals to the federal government for habitat loss were made by urban developers, mining companies and commercial developers. A tiny 1.3% of referrals were made by agricultural developers – despite clear evidence that land clearing for pasture development is the primary driver of habitat destruction.
Alarmingly, even when companies or people did refer proposed actions, 99% were allowed to proceed (sometimes with conditions).
The high approval rates may be derived, in part, from inconsistent application of the “significance” test under the federal laws.
For example, in a successful prosecution in 2015, Powercor Australia and Vemco] were fined A$200,000 for failing to refer clearing of a tiny 0.5 hectares of a critically endangered ecosystem. In contrast, much larger tracts of habitat have been destroyed without referral or approval, and without any such enforcement action being taken.
Clearer criteria for determining whether an impact is significant would reduce inconsistency in decisions, and provide more certainty for stakeholders.
The laws must be enforced and reformed
If the habitat loss trend continues, two things are certain: more species will become threatened with extinction, and more species will become extinct.
The Act must, as a matter of urgency, be properly enforced to curtail the mass non-referral of actions that our analysis has revealed.
If nothing else, this will help Australia meet its commitment under the Convention on Biological Diversity to prevent extinction of known threatened species and improve their conservation status by 2020.
Mapping the critical habitat essential to the survival of every threatened species is also an important step. The Act should also be reformed to ensure critical habitat is identified and protected, as happens in the United States.
It’s official. The outlook for the Great Barrier Reef has been downgraded from “poor” to “very poor” by the Australian government’s own experts.
That’s the conclusion of the latest five-yearly report from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, released on Friday. The report assessed literally hundreds of scientific studies published on the reef’s declining condition since the last report was published in 2014.
Looking to the future, the report said “the current rate of global warming will not allow the maintenance of a healthy reef for future generations […] the window of opportunity to improve the reef’s long-term future is now”.
But that window of opportunity is being squandered so long as Australia’s and the world’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.
The evidence on the reef’s condition is unequivocal
A logical national response to the outlook report would be a pledge to curb activity that contributes to global warming and damages the reef. Such action would include a ban on the new extraction of fossil fuels, phasing out coal-fired electricity generation, transitioning to electrified transport, controlling land clearing and reducing local stressors on the reef such as land-based runoff from agriculture.
But federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s response to the outlook report suggested she saw no need to take dramatic action on emissions, when she declared: “it’s the best managed reef in the world”.
But rather than meaningfully tackle Australia’s contribution to climate change, the federal government has focused its efforts on fixing the damage wrought on the reef. For example as part of a A$444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the government has allocated $100 million for reef restoration and adaptation projects over the next five years or so.
It showed authorities have failed to reach water quality targets set under the Reef 2050 Plan – Australia’s long-term plan for improving the condition of the reef.
For example the plan sets a target that by 2025, 90% of sugarcane land in reef catchments should have adopted improved farming practices. However the report showed the adoption had occurred on just 9.8% of land, earning the sugarcane sector a grade of “E”.
So yes, the reef is definitely in danger
The 2019 outlook report and other submissions from Australia will be assessed next year when the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets to determine if the Great Barrier Reef should be listed as “in danger” – an outcome the federal government will fight hard to avoid.
An in-danger listing would signal to the world that the reef was in peril, and put the federal government under greater pressure to urgently prevent further damage. Such a listing would be embarrassing for Australia, which presents itself as a world’s-best manager of its natural assets.
The outlook report maintains that the attributes of the Great Barrier Reef
that led to its inscription as a world heritage area in 1981 are still intact, despite the loss of close to half of the corals in 2016 and 2017.
But by any rational assessment, the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. Most of the pressures on the reef are ongoing, and some are escalating – notably anthropogenic heating, also known as human-induced climate change.
And current efforts to protect the reef are demonstrably failing. For example despite an ongoing “control” program, outbreaks of the damaging crown-of-thorns starfish – triggered by poor water quality – have spread throughout the reef.
The federal government has recently argued that climate change should not form the basis for an in-danger listing, because rising emissions are not the responsibility of individual countries. The argument comes despite Australia having one of the highest per capita emissions rates in the world.
But as Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise – an outcome supported by government policy – the continued downward trajectory of the Great Barrier Reef is inevitable.