QUARTERLY ESSAY 48 After the Future



John Woinarski

Tim Flannery’s Quarterly Essay adds a welcome modern perspective to a historic succession of prophecies by perceptive observers of Australia’s natural environment. Following his brief visit to Australia, Charles Darwin warned of the likelihood of rapid and catastrophic loss of our wildlife. From the 1850s, John Gould did the same. Flannery notes a similar recognition and call to action by Jock Marshall in his 1966 book The Great Extermination. There have been many others. I like particularly the writings of H.H. Finlayson (in his 1935 book The Red Centre), for the Biblical power, insight and eloquence of his message: 

The old Australia is passing. The environment which moulded the most remarkable fauna in the world is beset on all sides by influences which are reducing it to a medley of semi-artificial environments, in which the original plan is lost and the final outcome of which no man may predict …

Much of the settlement so affected is very sparse so far as the human element is concerned, and incredulity is often expressed that such occupation as obtains in many parts of the interior could have caused appreciable changes to the original conditions. It is not so much, however, that species are exterminated by the introduction of stock, though this has happened often enough, but the complex equilibrium which governs long established floras and faunas is drastically disturbed or even demolished altogether. Some forms are favoured at the expense of others; habits are altered; distribution is modified, and much evidence of the past history of the life of the country slips suddenly into obscurity.

These are experts interpreting a system and concluding clearly that current practices and policies will cause (or not prevent) devastating losses. Why is it that their message has been so little heeded? And will it be any different with Tim Flannery’s call?

I suspect that the answer to the first question is partly because our community cares relatively little about our natural environment; partly because, Cassandra-like, the experts are not believed; and partly because, although some responses have been made, these have been too superficial and transient, and do not adequately address the now deep-rooted causes of environmental dysfunction in Australia.

Australians celebrate the natural environment. It is embedded in our national anthem, in our iconography, in our recreational pursuits and in our sense of identity as a nation. But I suspect that it is a shallow appreciation, and that our empathy and affinity with nature are diminishing as our population becomes more urban, as our experiences of the outdoors become increasingly limited and vicarious, as modified environments and commensal species imperceptibly become the familiar norm, and as our society becomes more affluent and global. Dogs and cats dominate our interactions with other animal species, and we are far more attuned to and care far more for them than for phascogales and dunnarts, quolls, woylies and potoroos. With diminishing empathy, our willingness to conserve our distinctively Australian biodiversity becomes ever more fragile. 

But empathy is only one of the necessary ingredients for biodiversity conservation. Beyond a narrow argument that it is in our own (selfish) interests to maintain functioning ecological systems, the essential case for biodiversity conservation is moral: what rights do other species have? And is it ethical for us to cause the extinction of other species? Tim Flannery’s essay touches only lightly on this core, but it is fundamental to how we manage biodiversity. My take is that all other extant species should have a right to exist in viable wild populations. From that premise, it follows that we should accept the obligation to avoid actions that will cause the extinction of any species; and, furthermore, that we should take actions that may avert extinctions even if we are not the direct cause of that endangerment.

However, the premise that other species have rights (most notably for their continued existence) has but limited support in Western intellectual and religious tradition, where attention focuses far more myopically on ourselves, and concern for other animals (let alone plants) is limited mostly to ethical issues around the (mis-)treatment of individuals. Some may argue that it is an arrogant pretence for humans to posit rights for other species, but such a response seems perverse, and is inconsistent with the basic egalitarianism of recognising the fundamental right of all species to continued existence.

The argument can be complemented by introducing the idea of inter-generational equity: that we have an obligation to leave to our descendants a world that is as good, healthy and intact as that which we inherited. Extinctions represent a breach of inter-generational equity; and the likelihood of many more extinctions among large swathes of Australia’s unique biodiversity (as presaged by Tim Flannery) represents a trashing by our generation of the legacy that we will bequeath to our successors. To reprise Flannery’s theme, we are living beyond our means, eating into our descendants’ future, with this unsustainability demonstrated in Australia’s continuing loss of native species.

Flannery’s essay uses the very recent extinction of the Christmas Island pipistrelle as a landmark symbolic event. That extinction is a sharp lesson. Without it, one could perhaps have argued, complacently, that Australian extinctions were an unfortunate phenomenon of the past, a “shock of the new” manifestation of the initial impact of European settlement on this very different continent, a now-regretted consequence of a time when our society cared less for the environment and understood little of its ecological workings. The pipistrelle’s extinction punctures that complacency, exposes that argument as a fallacy. The pipistrelle’s extinction alerts us to the likelihood that we will lose much more of Australia’s extraordinary biodiversity unless we change the way that we care for our environment. 

As with other recent accounts, Flannery’s consideration of the pipistrelle’s extinction focuses mainly and understandably on the denouement, the failure of the minister or the relevant environment department to respond with sufficient pace, resources or expertise. It is a not unreasonable critique. But to some extent it is like blaming a hospital for lack of surgical success with a patient dying from mesothelioma – the ultimate cause lies much deeper. The extinction of the pipistrelle is emblematic in that the driver of extinction was our unsustainable use of natural resources, and of not factoring environmental costs into resource use. For more than a century since its settlement, Christmas Island has been used primarily as a mine site, mandated to deliver phosphate as cheaply as possible to Australian farmers, with – for most of this period – no regard for environmental consequences and little or no quarantine. Mining and its attendant influx of unwanted weeds and pests harmed the special environment of Christmas Island, and this series of changes has caused the loss of most of its endemic mammal and reptile species. The phosphate production provided our society with cheaper food, but at an environmental consequence that was not recognised or recompensed. Our resource consumption came at a hidden environmental cost. Writ large, the same argument applies Australia-wide.

Flannery’s argument in his Quarterly Essay focuses largely on management practice, resourcing and expertise. These are important considerations, but shortcomings in policy and legislation are also vital components of the story, as is the lack of an accepted and robust moral foundation. Australia’s premier environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, offers significant protection to biodiversity, and particularly threatened species, especially from actions that may lead directly and acutely to extinction. But it provides less protection for biodiversity from chronic, pervasive, insidious and cumulative threats, and it is mostly these factors that are driving Australian species to extinction. It also provides no overarching commitment to the maintenance of all Australian native plant and animal species. Australia’s main conservation policy (Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030) similarly accepts no explicit obligation to prevent extinctions. It is a fatal omission, which contrasts strongly with the conservation strategies of some states (notably that of South Australia, boldly called No Species Loss) and with the strategy espoused globally (the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 and its Aichi Targets assert, “By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented”).

As Flannery notes, we should not tolerate meekly the extinction of any Australian native species. Such loss stains our society; it demonstrates that we are not living sustainably; it degrades our legacy.


John Woinarski is a professor in the Research Institute for Environment & Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University, although currently living on Christmas Island. He has spent most of his working life involved in the research and management of Australia’s threatened biodiversity.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 48, After the Future. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 49, Not Dead Yet.


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