Why I wrote the buffel essays: When enough people act, leaders will follow.

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COMMENT by MIKE GILLAM

Part four in a series of four.

I trust most readers of the Alice Springs News realise that advancing buffel grass is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise afflicting our society.

As a nation of colonists we’re inclined to excuse the excesses of the past 200 plus years by the all-encompassing attribution to ignorance.

But in truth, relentless environmental destruction escalates every day and remains the harsh reality of our future. While a degree of ignorance is always in play, the consequences of greed, self-interest and inertia among affluent societies are much more harmful and less forgivable.

So please let’s move ignorance down the scale of destructive human traits and take some responsibility for the present. Most corporates, bankers, fund managers, insurers, scientists and politicians are well aware of what we’re not doing and what’s at stake.

From beginning to end in this story, an absence of morality and ethics is surely the elephant in the room.

Many of us in the first world seem resigned to reports of global temperatures increasing by several degrees Celsius in our lifetime, (just turn up the air-conditioner).

The World Wildlife Fund reports on the impacts of the sixth extinction event underway: “Currently, the species extinction rate is estimated between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rates – extinctions that would occur if we humans were not around

“The sixth mass extinction is driven by human activity, primarily … the unsustainable use of land, water and energy … and climate change.”

Impacts on human societies of the Anthropocene or Holocene extinction event will be profound.

Politics has become our nation’s race to the bottom, a slow and tortuous performance, less about ideas and what is good for society and more about our team winning on the day.

Of course as victors we are subjected to a painful three or four years as our team squanders our great victory. How many Australians can look to the natural environment at the end of any political term and see actual improvement?

We hold our breath. What species extinctions will be sanctioned by the current government so a corporate can maximise their profits, extract and sell a commodity that is already available from other less destructive sources?

Polarisation, the talent of so many politicians, pits people and communities against one another, a corrosive feedback loop that furthers division and prevents even small changes from occurring in a timely and bipartisan spirit.

Polarisation provides great advantage to vested interests and political opportunists. This is also the preferred habitat of influencers, unable or unwilling to discuss complex problems, reliant on one liners that will deliver personal power or notoriety in a rhetorical flash.

Unfortunately, many in our passing parade of political leaders are risk averse and have little appetite for big issues requiring big effort. Action only seems possible if our leaders believe there’s a substantial number of votes in being brave and a greater personal risk if they continue to do nothing. When your government is in the thrall of corporates a scandal is often required to break the deadlock.

We obsess over choosing the right players for team sports but when it comes to climate change, the most urgent and dire contest the world is ever likely to face, we field a team that is numerically ponderous, utterly fragmented, patchy on merit and even ethically compromised.

Hope of improving our political culture is thwarted by many factors beginning with the reluctance of exceptional candidates to enter politics and squander their lives in a political swamp where they correctly assume any worthwhile change will be nigh impossible. Notwithstanding the existence of some exemplary politicians serving the interests of this country, maintaining the status quo is a predetermined outcome.

Tactics that confuse, stop or delay are the life blood of those who stand to benefit financially by a continuation of the status quo.

The champions of self-interest are adept at commissioning others to do their bidding and this becomes soft corruption that infiltrates our democracy at every level.

Strident public concern about climate change and the environment are not enough and have not changed the fossil fuel agendas of our political duopoly. In the US, industry pushback has led to some state governors seeking to financially boycott and punish any pension fund managers with a record of proactively disengaging from the fossil fuel industry.

State, Territory and National Governments must curb the huge levels of financial support for the fossil fuel industry and urgently prioritise the protection of the natural environment.

To address the perils of climate change and the environmentally negligent behaviours of land-use enterprise, existing EPBC (Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) legislation must be vigorously applied and stronger legislation and severe penalties tailored to meet the challenges of the future. Compliance is paramount and public interest prosecutions should be pursued as a matter of course.

Australians are subjected to daily updates on stocks, shares and currencies, and there is a counterbalancing need for reporting on the status of our natural habitat, preferably before the sports results!

Why not report on the uptake of renewables, the health of rivers, the status of threatened species, feral animals, distribution of buffel grass, loss of old growth forests, and independent reporting on ocean temperature data, levels of green-house gases and glacial melt to name a few?

The virtual absence of such information helps to explain our national obsession with finance. A first world people, we’re addicted to buying the cheapest commodities while asking no questions about quality or the hidden environmental cost of our choices.

When we speak of falling living standards, sadly it’s mostly about money and what our citizens can buy.

Nature’s balance sheet is hugely in deficit and a future that’s focussed on need over greed, a passion for working within the framework and laws of nature, is long overdue and could actually lift up future generations.

Do no harm should be the mission statement of every business but it’s fast becoming: do not get caught while doing harm, and for politicians, how can I spin a given situation.

Accountability is one critical filter that is not delivering for our imperilled civil society. At a time when we need a fearless, vigilant and independent media, revenues in this sector have declined sharply, resulting in a major loss of oversight and investigative journalism. Invariably, the most “successful” media umpires rely on  a business model that attracts political and corporate patronage. Adopting a less critical eye helps.

Progressive Governments could ease these monumental failures in public trust by holding regular press conferences and giving public servants the freedom to answer questions from the press gallery.

In the absence of such accountability and honesty we must question the worth of our highly paid and privileged parliamentarians to represent our community. I return to my claim of lying by omission!

I live in a world where rare individuals seem to exercise more care and stewardship for the natural environment than whole government departments.

Above all these passionate and committed individuals are in a hurry.

They are not for sale and this leads to a clarity of decision making, informed by a thorough understanding of societal and environmental trends, thereby maximising cost benefits to advance their cause.

NGOs, always under-resourced, appear to attract the best and brightest, true believers unencumbered by corporate patronage and insidious agendas or the need to endlessly compromise for the sake of the biggest egos or political party unity.

From fracking to land clearing and the granting of exceptional water licenses, the frequency of contentious land use approvals in the Northern Territory has resulted in a string of scandals.

In a recent development, the Central Australian Frack Free Alliance, is challenging the validity of a ministerial decision in the Supreme Court.

Is the rise of whistle-blowers, taking dramatic personal risks, a warning that Government acting in the best interests of society is no longer believable? Has the democratic process become a means of distracting the masses while big business continues to reel in massive profits and pirates of the modern era leave a legacy of degradation in their wake?

Are the grossly inadequate bonds required by government for extractive industries (McArthur River Mine) or generous water licenses awarded to landowners (Fortune Agribusiness) simply a continuation of corporate welfare?

Of life’s priorities and great passions, most of my friends can be subdivided into two camps: those who are passionate about the sentient, or animate world, and others who revere subjects, inanimate.

Unfortunately, these differences can lead to a form of class stereotyping with elements on both sides calling out the other as greenies or rev heads!

Overlaps do occur and some rare individuals are equally passionate about the call of a frog and the roar of a V8. Parents of any persuasion naturally share their greatest passions with their children and patiently guide them along familiar pathways.

That’s understandable but we urgently need to make environmental literacy available to all as though our very survival depends on it.

Ecological understanding is of paramount importance unless you believe human ingenuity alone can solve all our problems, that the creation of more technology and “superior” digital worlds is enough.

The rise of social media and technological wizardry can be all-consuming and I believe this is leading to a harmful poverty of spirit in society, a condition that may be “treated” through a balancing exposure to nature if we can find a readily available source.

It’s important to acknowledge the increasing dislocation of people from the natural world. I‘ve read somewhere that an alarming number of Australians can identify more brands and logos than actual species, a gap that has grown in my generation.

Some might call this ignorance. I prefer the descriptor of “nature deprivation syndrome”.

Causes are manifold, including the comprehensive loss of wild places, the design and density of cities, the removal of large trees seen as a public liability hazard or an impediment to greater profitability, or both.

In Central Australia a huge loss of old growth trees is occurring and this can be attributed to the rampage of exotic grasses; a bit like pouring petrol on a fire.

From early childhood, majestic trees across the country best represent our enduring connection to nature, but will this hold true for future generations? As memories fade will we come to believe the treeless savannahs of Central Australia represent nature as it should be?

In the minds of Arrernte custodians, the old growth red gums in Alice Springs are sacred sites, totemic ancestors and links to family. Mature trees pre-date European settlers and I’ve witnessed the deep trauma inflicted on custodians when such trees are killed by fire.

Conversely the health benefits for Aboriginal people working on country, in land management roles and Indigenous Protected Areas are well documented.

Wherever possible, I believe we must embrace our differences and seek out the common ground that surely exists between people. Continuing failure to engage the mainstream and communicate effectively on environmental issues, predisposes our nation to ever more extreme forms of economic rationalism posing as leadership in the decades ahead. Examples loom large in the world around us.

There is little point blaming those in our midst who are unconcerned for the natural environment and its embattled life forms. This is more about the quality of information, the teacher and finding the very best opportunities for exchange.

Of course it doesn’t help that our own governments behave like hard-nosed corporates, conceal information and invest in so much spin. When I see our environmental educators of the future spending so much time, energy and their own savings to challenge the shortcomings of due process and the excesses of government I feel a mixture of sadness and hope.

That governments are so conflicted on their environmental duty of care, that such a huge disconnect exists between our leaders and its citizenry, begs analysis. As a nation of diverse peoples, education and lived experience, our appreciation of environment can be climatic zones apart.

Some see a cleared field of green, dotted with white sheep as a wasteland, others a picture of bucolic perfection and order. Polarisation grows when our differences are expressed in ways that exclude or disrespect others. Diversity is a strength of desert ecosystems but in human society it often leads to schisms and polarisation, a situation that is exploited endlessly by shallow leaders.

There are a great many sound scientific, cultural and ethical reasons why retaining our biodiversity should be regarded as sacrosanct. Life is not only about feeding the world, it’s also about survival of the human spirit and that of the next generation and the next.

I would argue the unique landscapes and biota of the Australian continent represent the core values of our nation. Demonstrating to our children that not everything is for sale, that some values are sacred would be a good place to start.

This is the ultimate form of altruism, for turning around our not so civil society, building cultural bridges and improving our chances of survival. I remind children that my favourite every-day experiences are free, courtesy of a garden brimming with wildlife and definitely more beautiful, spontaneous and variable than anything I can buy or create with pixels.

Perhaps there’s a philanthropic organisation with an interest in early childhood education out there?

Empathy and concern for the splendour and struggles of the natural world does follow exposure and familiarity. While the mental health of people can hugely benefit from this contact, the planet will also benefit from a rise in human understanding, advocacy and care.

I firmly believe that environmental awareness, community wide, will help to unify our population and build a stronger democratic nation.

I’ve come to realise the critical importance of matching the right people with the challenges we face. Put simply we need landowners who are committed to working with the country and ministers for the environment who do much more than keep the seat warm.

When old growth trees are on fire we should appreciate that having some-one who cares deeply about their value, on the end of the fire hose, is just as important as technical training.

We are gripped by a plague that seems to afflict both the natural environment and the quality of government. If more people could find the courage to act on issues impacting biodiversity, then less aggravation would fall on the heads of a minority of activists. When enough people act, leaders follow and we certainly need Governments to function honourably if we are to meet the challenges of climate impacts on biodiversity.

I highlight the example of wilderness photographer and campaigner, Olegas Truchanas. In 1965 Truchanas placed himself in a “difficult position with his employer (Hydro-electric Commission of Tasmania), gave a series of audio visual lectures at the Hobart Town Hall … aimed at publicising the environmental losses that would follow the flooding of the lake [Pedder]”. (Dictionary of Biography.)

The words of Truchanas resonate in the Northern Territory where environmental conquest is a growing threat to biodiversity and our quality of life: “If we can accept a role of steward and depart from the role of conqueror, if we can accept that man and nature are inseparable parts of a whole, then Tasmania can be a shining beacon in a dull, uniform and largely artificial world.”

For those silenced bureaucrats of the Northern Territory I can thoroughly recommend photography, video, visual and performing arts as a source of inspiration and political absolution.

Buffel ballet, anyone?

PHOTOS by MIKE GILLAM. FROM TOP: Western myall and chenopods • Emu scat with quandongs • Lilies, South Australia • Kites and fire.

Earlier essays about buffel by MIKE GILLAM

ESSAY THREE Privatise the buffel profits, socialise the costs

ESSAY TWO Buffel: South Australia leading the way

ESSAY ONE From grass castles to fiery ruins

6 COMMENTS

  1. “WHEN ENOUGH PEOPLE ACT, LEADERS WILL FOLLOW”
    Whilst I disagree with one or two conclusions, every paragraph is brilliant in conception – truth telling and delivery.
    How fortunate are we to be so privileged.
    The essays should be made compulsory reading in every university and parliament – requiring their written responses.

  2. Mike, great series of articles. Thank you for your commitment, knowledge, and passion.
    Unfortunately the pastoralists have got the ear of the government(s) and if this cannot be changed under Labor, it certainly won’t be changed by the other lot.
    All we can do is get out the mattock and get cracking at the buffel in right front of us.

  3. @ Jon Rose: In the face of government intransigence, there is more that could be done apart from getting out the mattock, which will not dent the large scale invasion.
    The known biological agents that degrade and destroy buffel are well known and could be released into the wild by anyone.
    While there is a risk that there will be collateral damage to non-target species there are no reports of this from Queensland, although of course that doesn’t mean there will be none in Central Australia.
    But the risks are likely to be minimal and on balance the benefits should be huge.
    The NT Government and its pastoralist lobby mates should consider that sometime in the future buffel control agents will be probably released here, either as part of a scientifically controlled program or by individuals who feel they can no longer stand idly by as the environment is continuously degraded.

  4. @ Ralph: Don’t know why, but your comment reminds of a story I have been told.
    In Western Victoria last century a group of more than a dozen farmers went on a kangaroo killing spree. They considered the roos vermin, but the law regarded shooting kangaroos to be a crime.
    When the group fronted a magistrate all bar one pleaded not guilty.
    The guilty party was given the maximum fine.

  5. Mike, A great uplifting and enthusiastic article. Unfortunately the forces aligned against us are more dire than just apathy and indifference.
    This is a long and academic piece, Frank Baarda said it put him to sleep, but it was worth reading (not as long as it appears, several pages are references). It was published on UTS e PRESS.
    What I take away from the paper briefly is this: The International far right movement is a network with local members / fronts.
    Prominent in Australia are the CIS, the IPA, the Sydney Institute, and Advance Australia.
    I suspect the “Atlas” tag comes from the Ayn Rand book Atlas Shrugged.
    It is / has been funded largely by the fossil fuel industry.
    While this is directly dealing with the Voice referendum, the very same people and money are aimed squarely at anyone who thinks the “environment” should interfere with the God given right to make short term profits.

  6. Charlie, thanks very much for posting the link. Working remote I struggled to read the paper on my phone but it seemed thorough and compelling.
    I’ll certainly look more closely when I’m in front of a monitor. To repackage this information for a general audience would be a challenge. Such behind the scenes skulduggery makes my blood boil.

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