Tim Flannery is dismayed by the “haphazard” efforts to prevent a looming extinction crisis, but some of the solutions he proposes are themselves haphazard, such as liberating Komodo dragons on mainland Australia. Which endangered species are going to benefit from Komodo dragons in their habitat? Certainly not the bridled nailtail wallaby featured on the cover of his essay, which Flannery highlights as one of Australia’s three mammals at most risk. Komodo dragons on their Indonesian islands eat pigs, deer and sometimes people, and wallabies would suit them nicely. Flannery worries about growing hostility towards anything environmental, but by advocating man-eating lizards he runs the risk of contributing to this.
He discusses David Bowman’s attention-seeking plan to bring African elephants into Australia to eat weeds, before deciding this might not be wise. That being so, why mention it? He complains about a failure to appreciate the severity of environmental problems but seems willing to trivialise these same problems by entertaining bizarre solutions.
Flannery is more to the point when he notes a recent column in the Age that argues against any obligation to be “stewards” of the environment because the “Earth’s bounty can be used for the benefit of humanity.” Who would have thought anyone could argue against environmental stewardship? But the standing of environmental values in society has become uncertain. The problem until recently was that commitments to sustainability were seldom met. The problem today is that governments are retreating even from commitments to sustainability. Australia has never been so prosperous, yet spending on the environment is falling. Environmental protection has been redefined as “green tape” holding Australia back.
Flannery speaks of the need for sound environmental science, but the failure of the world to respond sensibly to climate change points to human sciences as a higher priority. We need to understand how so many people can turn their backs on scientific advice. We need to synthesise the insights of environmental experts, psychologists, sociologists, environmental philosophers, communicators and everyone else with something to say about a way forward.
The disconnection of people from nature is a significant part of the problem. The New Nature movement, centred around the writings of Richard Louv, helps show how this might be overcome.
Under these circumstances the broader environmental movement needs to rethink how it operates and the image it presents to the world. The problem is not simply one of how to save species. Values, and how they are presented, are at issue, as the framing of environmental protection as “green tape” demonstrates. Australians need to hear why, in these times, the environment still matters. More than that, they need a vision of themselves as people who care.
The crisis Flannery speaks of is even worse than he depicts. The Queensland government has recently abandoned the eradication of crazy ants from Queensland in a cost-cutting measure, placing at risk the Wet Tropics rainforests. These ants are the main reason why the Christmas Island pipistrelle became extinct. Flannery’s passion is for mammals, so he does not mention the recent extinction of the white-chested white-eye, a small bird on Norfolk Island, nor the imminent demise of the Christmas Island forest skink, down to one female, surviving in captivity. No, she is not pregnant.
Tim Low is a biologist and environmental consultant. He is the author of The New Nature and Feral Future, a regular contributor to Nature Australia and Australian Geographic, and patron of the not-for-profit organisation Rainforest Rescue.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 49, Not Dead Yet.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY