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Essay

The man without a face

BEFORE I WAS born, my family arrived in Western Australia from Europe and moved into a ramshackle brick house on three-plus acres in Kelmscott, then a semi-rural locality on the outskirts of Perth. The property featured an orchard that ran down to a wide stream, a minor tributary of the Canning River. The creek – which my family always called ‘the river’ – was full of life when they arrived, including local species of fresh water catfish, colourful pigmy perch, various kinds of molluscs and a range of crustaceans, of which the most marvellous was an abundance of that mighty crayfish endemic to south-western Australia, the marron.

The river was my father’s delight. He would clamber among the rocks, burning off and clearing brambles when necessary, and would often end up with his white vest, shorts and gumboots generously daubed with the rich, aromatic mud from the shallow pools beneath the paperbarks. Until his last years, Dad would recall his instant love of the river – an affection that deepened when he noticed big marron clambering across submerged stones and logs in broad daylight. Once they’d settled in the house, my family would periodically fish a plate of marron out of the river for a meal of imperial quality over which my father, once a frightened and penniless refugee, would preside over contentedly, extolling the beneficent wealth of his adopted state.

Then one day a stranger came, driving his vehicle close to the river on the opposite bank. It was over in a matter of days. Using a spear and swimming with goggles where the water was deep enough, he took out marron by the sackful in a carnage that was efficient and final. The stock was devastated and never recovered. The few marron that survived to be caught in my lifetime were treated with solemnity and returned to the water, in the hopes of supporting the recovery of the species. It didn’t happen. I never shared marron with my Dad – they had simply become too precious to eat. The devastation occurred before I was born, but conceit of mind has conspired to stalk me with a persistent night terror of those events. In my recurring dream the man with the spear has no face, the sacks are always full and I cannot console my father.

ACROSS THE WORLD, species of animals and plants are becoming extinct at an increasing rate. A few species finish their evolutionary run violently, in the spotlight. The last known wild thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) in Australia and passenger pigeon in North America were shot. The final Pinta Island tortoise died a global celebrity in 2012, anthropomorphised in pitying condescension as ‘Lonesome George’. The demise of the Christmas Island pipistrelle in 2009 – the first Australian mammal known to have become extinct for some decades – was a cause célèbre. [i]

It is reasonable to assume, though, that the vanishing of species from the Earth often goes unmarked. Indeed, so little do we know of the nine million or so other forms of life with which we share the planet that many may be swept away by broadscale devastation, such as land clearing or ocean-bottom trawling, or changes in conditions associated with climate change, without us ever having known they were there. The rate of ecological deterioration attributable to human activity is now so pronounced that some scientists have begun referring to a period of ‘Holocene’ or ‘Anthropocene’ extinction, comparable to previous eras of dramatic biodiversity loss evident in the fossil record. [ii]

When animals or plants vanish locally, in many cases it will not be the end of a species. A creature may become extinct in one place but still flourish in viable populations elsewhere. The dispatching of marron from a creek in Kelmscott did not bring that species undone. The fishery is now heavily regulated, but marron can still be found in the inland waters of the southern corner of WA and are even farmed with some success.

Nevertheless, the loss of a creature from a particular location will transform that place and can be deeply painful for the people who are left behind. US writer Robert Michael Pyle has described this phenomenon as the ‘extinction of experience’:

Simply stated, the loss of neighbourhood species endangers our experience of nature. If a species becomes extinct within our own radius of reach (smaller for the very old, very young, disabled and poor) it might as well be gone altogether, in one important sense. To those whose access suffers by it, local extinction has much the same result as global eradication. [iii]

Pyle argues that the vanishing of an animal from a person’s realm of real experience has important social and psychological consequences. WA is full of stories of local loss, of great spots ‘fished out’; of animals we ‘used to see around here’, of, ‘now that I think about it, I haven’t seen one of those in ages’. The diminishing of the wildlife around us has consequences for how we see things. In my father’s case, his relationship with the river was fundamentally altered. Dad would find himself lost in the slough of solastalgia – a concept coined later to capture the existential distress caused by environmental change in one’s familiar places – when recalling the pillage of the marron. The watercourse had epitomised the abundance and freedom of his adopted home; now it spoke to him of loss.

MY FAMILY WERE, of course, not the first people to have been denied the river’s riches and their experience of losing the marron was trifling compared to the original dispossession. The township of Kelmscott was gazetted in 1830 and became a military outpost of the new colony. Noongar people had eaten marron since time immemorial – the name itself is of local Aboriginal derivation – but with the onslaught of colonisation, traditional country and resources became less accessible and their ways of life were disrupted. Like all of Australia’s First Peoples, the traditional owners of the Canning River did their best in the circumstances, at times resisting, at others adapting and accommodating. My mother, a woman who combined earnest practicality and pragmatism with inconsistent folk superstitions, told me as a small child that she believed the valley we lived in was haunted by the souls of those who had been killed or driven out generations earlier.

No doubt the Canning River that my family knew in the late ’60s was itself a shrunken shadow of the Djarlgarra that had nourished the original inhabitants for millennia. Yet each generation knows as ‘natural’ that which it finds, a phenomenon that eminent marine biologist Professor Daniel Pauly dubbed as ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. [iv]

The river would always feel empty to my father, but to me it was magically alive, inhabited by those species that remained. I’ve never related to marron as anything other than a rarity; the uncommonness of the creature is, in my experience, just the normal state of things.

EXTINCTION IS AN abstraction, but animals vanishing from our places and our lives changes how we think about nature. In Australia, the two are causatively linked because our cities are located in areas of biological richness: we are attracted by the availability of fresh water and comparatively nutrient-rich soils and seas. The point of Pyle’s argument is that people who have less experience of nature in their daily lives are less likely to be engaged enough to care about the fate of the natural world. Indeed, we are in the midst of an alienation that is multidimensional. For the first time in human history more people live in cities than in the country. It seems likely that, as a species, we spend more time inside buildings than ever before and the twenty-first century version of being indoors often involves a very high degree of separation from the outside. In the developed world, many of us will go for protracted periods without feeling sand, dirt or grass under our feet. Estranged from nature, we experience global environmental catastrophe from the relative stability of the dropping cage. Fish are wisecracking and pixelated, cucumbers come wrapped in plastic, air is conditioned and water bottled, and some form of everything is always available regardless of the season.

All this is considered normal.

THROUGHOUT THE WORLD, scientists are deeply worried about the rate and scale of biodiversity loss, particularly given the compounding effect of climate change. The most recent Global Biodiversity Outlook, published under the auspices of the United Nations’ Convention on Biodiversity, concluded bluntly that ‘[n]atural systems that support economies, lives and livelihoods across the planet are at risk of rapid degradation and collapse, unless there is swift, radical and creative action to conserve and sustainably use the variety of life on Earth.’ In Australia, the CSIRO has confirmed that ‘[m]ost of the pressures on biodiversity that arise directly or indirectly from human activities are still strong and will continue to be so in future years’, and ‘pressures are not being substantially reduced nor the decline arrested’. [v]

Something, though, is lost in translation. The commonly used expression ‘biodiversity loss’, for instance, is both technocratic and passive, undermining emotional and political response. ‘Biodiversity’ – a contraction of ‘biological diversity’ – may be a technically accurate expression for life’s richness and variety but the term lacks the emotive power to match the depth and beauty of the creation it aims to describe. Nobody hears the call of the wild or the whisper of the trees in ‘biodiversity’. Indeed, according to one notorious survey conducted in the UK, when respondents were asked about the meaning of ‘biodiversity’ the most common answer was ‘a brand of washing powder’.[vi] ‘Loss’, on the other hand, is curiously passive and suggests an accidental or consequential forfeiture. ‘How can I have misplaced the Dodo?’ ‘You must have left the Christmas Island pipistrelle somewhere! Did you check behind the couch?’ When referring to people, sometimes we speak of ‘loss’ when we mean ‘death’ and we do so because to address our mortality is difficult and taboo. Perhaps the same dynamic applies when a type of life dies; maybe the demise is too painful to be the subject of plain speech. Just as the death of someone we know is an uncomfortable aide-mémoire as to our own mortality, so the demise of a species reminds us that humanity, too, could vanish from the world. Perhaps, above all, ‘loss’ implies a kind of neutrality – an unintended consequence.

The reality is often different. The marron beloved of my father did not go quietly into the night of their own volition – they were caught and killed by the faceless man, who had every legal right to do as he pleased under the law at the time.

When contemplating the killing and destruction of whole kinds of plants and animals, we rarely consider the phenomenon as a consequence of the functioning of power. [vii] Yet at a fundamental level, the variety of the world’s plants and animals is being reduced because of how power is distributed. Species loss is caused by the harmful actions of powerful actors, private interests that are facilitated by governments failing to act for the common good. At present, our political systems are deficient in preserving the variety of life around us. Put another way, the Lorax lacks the clout of the Once-ler.

Our political economy is simply not based on the objective of securing life on earth. The formal consequence is a set of grossly inadequate institutions, laws and regulations. Their inadequacy means that, while certain specific environmental harms may be prohibited from time to time, the cumulative destruction of the natural world is today perfectly legal.

WA is a case in point. Based on its natural richness in endemic plant and amphibian species, and the significant threats that exist to its ecosystems, the Southwest Australian Ecoregion is recognised as one of the world’s ‘biodiversity hotspots’. More than half of our nationally recognised hotspots are also located in the state’s South West. Yet WA lacks the legal framework, institutional infrastructure or budgetary allocations necessary to effectively nurture the variety of life in the state. Environmental protection legislation is inadequate, and all too rarely applied in practice because there are too few enforcement officials. There is no Perth wildlife census, or anything tracking the disappearance of animals throughout the state. The ‘extinction of experience’ becomes sad rumour and melancholy anecdote. In a move that bleakly revealed the alienation of politics from nature, earlier this year Premier Colin Barnett responded to the perceived threat from shark attacks by introducing a sponsored killing of the animals off Perth’s beaches. There was never any rational scientific justification for the shark cull, which drew widespread public opprobrium and was ultimately terminated after a single season. [viii] Before the grotesque absurdity was discontinued, the state had spent more than a million dollars paying wildlife bounty hunters to kill sharks, including now rare species that should have been protected. [ix]

The most significant single piece of Commonwealth legislation that exists to protect biodiversity is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act (EPBC). It is designed to ensure that in ‘matters of national environmental significance’ the Commonwealth has some authority to act to protect World Heritage areas, endangered and vulnerable species and internationally important wetlands.

Given the declining state of biodiversity in Australia, it is clear that the Act has proven insufficient. Yet the Commonwealth Government is committed to watering down the oversight that exists by devolving power to the states, to create what it calls ‘a one-stop shop for environmental approvals’. The aim is ‘to simplify the approvals process for businesses, lead to swifter decisions and improve Australia’s investment climate, while maintaining high environmental standards’. [x]

The push for these changes came from Australia’s organised business lobby, which regards wildlife protection as ‘green tape’. The WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry has eagerly supported the proposed changes and has found an advocate in Premier Barnett. [xi] In blunt terms, winding back the EPBC will mean that an inadequate system will be made worse – one extra strand in the legislative and regulatory enabling of the Holocene extinction. 

BUSINESS CANNOT BE blamed for being business. Corporations are legislatively mandated to maximise returns for shareholders. Without specific environmental protection laws, nothing obliges big business to consider the effect of operations on surrounding plants and animals. A few years ago, when global business executives were asked about what would motivate them to address biodiversity loss, the ‘top choice’ on ‘what might spur them to take action’ was increased regulation. [xii] Yet given any opportunity, the organised business lobby in Australia will tirelessly campaign against ‘government intervention’ in the form of ‘green tape’. In practice, even those corporations diligently practising ‘sustainability’ will only do so as long as the effort is consistent with maximising returns. The most committed and well-meaning individuals acknowledge they are constricted by the ambit of their employer’s ‘mission’.

Business is all too often the faceless man of global biodiversity loss. None of this is to imply an anti-business perspective, but to argue that there is more at stake than short-term shareholder satisfaction. We need business living on the river, obliged to care for the world around. [xiii]

As Robyn Annear recently observed in a careful and nuanced meditation on the politics and culture of Perth, the place is more complicated than is often made out: ‘All cities are contingent, for better or worse.’ [xiv] Unquestionably, there is a WA in which everything seems up for grabs, but there have always been contrary traditions, both of environmental activism and conservatives who want to conserve things other than the advantage of vested interests.

What happens to the variety of wildlife is a matter of political choices. As the authors of the CSIRO’s most recent report on biodiversity in Australia noted, ‘every decision on natural resource management is a choice’. They added: ‘We write with a sense of urgency that these matters be debated in society and acted on. In our view, society needs to move into the normative stage of recognising that managing biodiversity for the long term is a core activity of our culture.’ [xv]

The plea is urgent but the language is academic and managerial. If the environmental politics of the last twenty years has taught us anything, it is the propensity for the earnest craft of scientists and public servants to be subject to the fire and axe of vested interests. Unless the dispassionate wisdom of scientists and other researchers is backed by social, cultural and political force to secure broader changes in the allocation of power, little will change. If there is to be a new politics of biodiversity for Western Australians to be secure, content and prosperous, with wonderful wildlife all around, people on the river will need to connect with scientists and others, to produce fresh and powerful formations that can sustain a genuine challenge to the faceless men.

Preserving the variety of life demands a marriage of knowledge and experience, romance and reason, to build a political project suited to the challenge. And as far as the extinction of experience is concerned, what was lost can yet be returned. My parents’ house was demolished thirty years ago, to enable the widening of Brookton Highway; but the river still runs. What will live in that little creek in the future is up to us.

 


[i] Flannery, T 2012, After the Future: Australia’s New Extinction Crisis (Quarterly Essay 48), Black Inc, Collingwood.

[ii] Kolbert, E 2014, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Henry Holt & Co, New York.

[iii] Pyle, RM 2002, ‘The Extinction of Experience’ in T.F. Dixon (ed) City Wilds: Essays and Stories about Urban Nature, University of Georgia Press, Athens (Ge), p. 261.

[iv] Pauly, D 1995, ‘Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries’, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, vol. 10, no. 10, p. 430.

[v] Morton, A, Sheppard, A & Lonsdale, M 2014, Biodiversity: Science and Solutions for Australia, CSIRO, p. 189.

[vi] ‘Biodiversity - a kind of washing powder?’, BBC Science and Environment News, 15 October 2010 <http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-11546289>.

[vii] Without wanting to overly-simplify the research and thinking involved, the immense and influential global study on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), for example, starts from the premise that biodiversity loss is a problem of economics, rather than power: See: <http://www.teebweb.org/>.

[viii] Meeuwig, J & Bradshaw, C 2014, ‘Why we’re opposing Western Australia’s shark cull: scientists’, The Conversation, 14 July, <http://theconversation.com/why-were-opposing-western-australias-shark-cull-scientists-28653>.

[ix] ‘WA shark cull: Trial expected to cost $1 million, Premier Colin Barnett says’, ABC News, 21 May 2014, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-05-20/wa-shark-cull-cost-about-1million-premier-says/5465878>. White sharks, whaler sharks and grey nurse sharks are protected under various legislation.

[xii] Ritter, D 2010, ‘Business and Biodiversity’, Global Policy, 18 September, <http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/18/09/2010/business-and-biodiversity>.

[xiii] It is readily possible to imagine the corporate form reconfigured in this way. The ‘B-Corp’ movement, for example, entails the incorporation of for-profit entities that are required to consider society and the environment as well as returns in their decision-making processes.

[xiv] Annear, R 2014, ‘Perth goes Boom: A week among the arts in the City of Light’, The Monthly, April, <http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2014/april/1396270800/robyn-annear/perth-goes-boom>.

[xv] Morton et al, p. 192.


From Griffith Review Edition 47: Looking West © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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