All those photos of psychopathic morons proudly showing the bleeding bodies of lions, giraffes, bears, wolves, elephants they have blasted with high-powered penis substitutes? Guess they think we will be envious of their prowess.

Makes good people not envious but sick to their stomachs seeing these vicious fools posed with their killing machines with foot triumphantly on top of the body of their victims. Makes them determined perhaps to try to stop this evil.
…Read more

Doctor, doctor, gimme the news


All over this planet, millions of species representing the end point of 4 billion years of evolution, living in ecosystems representing the end point of millions of years of ecological interaction, are being made extinct at a rate probably unprecedented in the history of Earth, and towards an end point seen only a few times in that history.

An incredible 100,000 or so species are estimated to be going extinct each year towards a total loss in just a few decades of at least half those existing just 100 years ago (when the extinction rate first gathered pace). My feeling is that estimates like “a half” represent scientists being cautious. That really the planet is faced with the extinction of 90% or more, and the last time that happened was a quarter of a billion years ago. The last time anything like the extent of the events of these two centuries happened was 65 million years ago as a large meteor exploded against the planet. The last significant set of extinctions was around 25,000 years ago as the climatic events of the end of the ice ages drove many large species, especially mammals, to extinction.
…Read more

The contrary assumption


Saw a quote yesterday, and, as is so often the case in my near-dotage, didn’t write it down in case I decided to use it later, which of course I did just 24 hours later. So forgive me a little inexactitude in the interests of a Meloncholic Muse. It was from a right wing politician in Australia (or America, Argentina, Angola, Azerbaijan…) bemoaning the fact that the Left in Australia (Albania, Austria…) liked to sign international treaties.

It was related, I think, to the Tasmanian election, and the determination of the Liberals to turn thousands of hectares of World Heritage forest into wood chips and scorched ground. Or perhaps it was related to the UN Refugee Convention. Or Human Rights. Whatever, it was related to the nerve of any agreement having the temerity to presume to limit the activities of an incoming Liberal government hell-bent on destroying whatever stood in the way of its neoconservative religion as surely as the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas that stood in the way of their religion.
…Read more

Phantom menaces


I’ve been watching, at long last, the three Star Wars prequel movies (yes, yes, I know how truly awful the first two are NOW, but you didn’t warn me, did you?). Something struck me as I watched the endless computer graphics supplying background to the endless special effect fight scenes.

It has long been a commonplace that the representation of “alien races” in science fiction always gets it wrong. In brief, for this is totally irrelevant to the essay, natural selection will work exactly the same way wherever life appears in the universe. And we know that physics and chemistry is uniform. So alien body forms can’t be just random collections of unconnected exotic features, and bodies are limited by physical and chemical laws. So Wookies, possible, Jar Jar Binks, not so much.

Where was I? Oh yes. Aliens are wrong, but so, generally, are the planets they are portrayed as living on. Many Star Wars planets are portrayed as having surfaces totally covered by cities composed of huge skyscrapers and clearly intended to indicate populations of billions of beings. It is an old concept in science fiction. I guess based on the ideas of inevitable massive population growth, endless technological innovation, and cities as the ultimate expression of human evolution and civilisation.
…Read more

Desert profit


“My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” Duke of Wellington, letter from the field of Waterloo (June 1815)

Tacitus some 1700 years earlier – “They rob, kill and plunder all under the deceiving name of Roman Rule. They make a desert and call it peace.”

At Xmas I came across a sad piece talking about Xmas 1913, looking at what a number of young men were doing that Xmas, and what would happen to them in the Great War. That is, die.

The essay beautifully makes the obvious point that 1913 marked the end of the old world. Nothing would ever be the same again – “What the war changed most, as Philip Larkin suggested in his great poem “MCMXIV”, written in 1964 for the half-centenary of the war, was the social deference born of ages; a blind trust in authority; a belief that everything was most likely to advance towards a better world. “Never such innocence again.””
…Read more

Visigoths and Vandals


It is August*, and the citizens are aware of the barbarians at the gates of their civilisation. The Visigoths have a bad reputation, but they have been secretly chatting to the slaves and convinced them they are really good guys, big supporters of the Lower Orders in fact. So one night the slaves open the locked gates and in come the Visigoths who then proceed to rape, pillage and generally wreck the joint, just as their reputation had suggested. The slaves, and this will shock you, ended up worse off.

Forty five years go by. Not very long, really, sufficiently short for old codgers like me to have seen the Visigoths in action and to think, oh shit, not again. But yes, this time it is the Vandals at the gates. No shenanigans with slaves this time, no need, all sorts of silly buggers have been played by the rulers of the civilisation, the politics is a mess, and next thing you know “The Vandals are coming, the Vandals are coming”. Who proceed to try to outdo those wimps the Visigoths and thoroughly trash the joint, so thoroughly that the year 455 is generally considered to mark the end of the once mighty 500 year old Roman Empire.
Yes, Rome, what did you think? Oh, I see, you thought you could see analogies with the citizens of Australia terrified of the arrival of Coalition barbarians on 7 September? Well, I hadn’t thought of that but now you mention it…
…Read more

Like snowflake crystal


When I was, many years ago, a youngish archaeozoologist (or zooarchaeologist, the difference in name being a matter of taste), one of the skills I needed, and had, was a combination of pattern recognition and pattern memory. I would be faced with dozens, hundreds perhaps, of pieces of bone in various sizes, shapes, colours, textures. The challenge was to look at them one at a time and remember that you had seen, somewhere else on the table, perhaps in another bag or box, another piece that was similar, very similar, in colour, texture, and that had a broken end that matched this broken end. I could reach out for where I knew it was and, hey presto, join together two parts of a broken bone.
…Read more

We need to talk about Kevin


The other day I saw the start of one of the Kevin McCloud lifestyle programs “Grand Designs” (a British series which follows people building unusual/interesting houses). I was struck by his opening scene. The camera ran a close-up on his face as he walked along. He said “What do you do in Britain if you want to build a house in the wilderness?” As he spoke the camera panned back to show that he was walking across a paddock, one of hundreds of acres of such paddocks as far as you could see, of pasture for sheep (which were, lambs at foot, dotted across the grass)! It would have been impossible to find a scene less “wildernessy”.

So pause for a moment, as I did, to absorb this incongruity. He isn’t a stupid man, Mr McCloud, so what on earth did he mean? Well, what he meant was that “wilderness” is anything that isn’t in a city. It’s like the ancient Greek sense of “Barbarians” meaning anyone who wasn’t Greek living in a Greek City State (a concept shared with most other cultures, everywhere from England, to China, to Aboriginal Australia, but I digress.

Let’s look at another, related, misused word, “pristine”. Once it meant what “wilderness” once meant – an environment unmodified by humans. Then it was turned on its head, by advertising agencies who decided it had a nice sound, to use, essentially, for a landscape with grass. As in a pristine golf course, a pristine housing development, a pristine farm (see the overlap with McCloud). But then it developed to pristine beaches (with added sand, breakwaters, carefully manicured by sand graders), pristine tropical islands (totally turned into tourist resorts) pristine snow resorts (trees and boulders removed from runs, ski lodges added, artificial snow created by machines), and so on. In this most recent sense it means something like “picturesque” “chocolate boxy” “place that photographs well” or, most simply “special offer, wouldn’t you love to have a holiday here?” Or, in a general sense, places that aren’t the city. Which brings us back neatly to Mr McCloud and his sheep paddock.

In the old days in Britain “wilderness” meant basically “places where we haven’t cut the trees down yet”. They were, consequently, dangerous, and might hide wolves, bears, brigands, ghosts, evil spirits and so on. A farm definitely wasn’t wilderness, but what lay beyond its fence line was.

The Romantics adopted this kind of definition, but turned it into a positive (following the original lead, in a different sense, of Rousseau). Wilderness was where we could get back in touch with nature, get away from the artificiality, indeed evils, of the city, where we were never meant to be, and get back to our roots. Now, instead of being feared, wild places of mountain or swamp or forest were celebrated in art and literature. People went hiking in them, climbed mountains, communed where the wild things were.

And then began creating “wilderness” on their estates – artificial waterfalls, clumps of trees, piles of rocks, fake ruins of temples, and so on. You could visit “wilderness” without the bother of travelling. And paintings, by Constable for example, treated as a single landscape the trees and rivers as well as the farm cottages or watermills or labourers in a field. At the same time the population was on the move as those same labourers tossed it in for more lucrative and perhaps easier work in factories and moved their families into town. The countryside was where they had escaped from, the primitive life, and they had no interest in it. If you needed a holiday from town then you travelled to a seaside resort which was a different kind of town, with a “pristine” beach, but with all the comforts of home. All views, and behaviour, which were exported to Australia with the first convicts and settlers.

So we come, gradually, to McCloud’s definition. Both symbolically, and actually, civilised life is in the city, and all that lies beyond is untamed, and rather threatening and uncomfortable, wilderness. Which people never really see, never want to see. Holidays still involve travel to artificial resorts (either in Australia, say the Gold Coast, or more often these days, in places like Thailand or Bali), the more “pristine” the better. They don’t involve contact with actual wilderness.

Does it matter? Of course it does. If wilderness is an undifferentiated “other” world out there beyond the outer suburbs, and a golf course or resort are “pristine”, then efforts at conservation will make no sense to you. Conversely nonsense like “farmers are the only true conservationists” or “miners restore the environment after mining” or “logging is good for forests” or “you got to choose between frogs and people” will seem to make perfect sense.

If you have no idea that what are trendily called “ecosystem services” these days – clean air, water, pest control, soil conservation – can only be provided by intact functioning ecosystems (wilderness), then you will see no problem in losing them. When populist politicians from Left or Right, or unionists, or big business, call for the felling of forests, the trawling of oceans, the complete use of river water for irrigation, the construction of huge open cut mines, the opening up of the North, shooting or grazing in forests, removal of marine reserves, the culling of bats or crocodiles, the public, in blissful ignorance, will applaud and vote accordingly.

Until the public understands that farmland is an environment little less degraded than cities and suburbs, and that actual functioning wilderness is consequently only in tiny, rapidly disappearing, areas, which are being woodchipped, mined, cleared, developed as I write these words, then there is no hope of trying to develop a public, and therefore political, conservation ethos.

Perhaps I could start with Kevin McCloud. Get him to make a program.

The Burning Bush


As climate change effects in Australia (and elsewhere) begin to intensify, one of the most notable, and deadly, is the increase in frequency and intensity of bushfires.

It’s important to say that more subtle effects will have been underway for sometime. Local populations of species will have become extinct in some places, will have expanded into others. There will be, as a result, species ranges slowly moving south, moving up mountains, moving towards coasts. There will be acceleration of losses and shifts when disasters like droughts, floods, fires, strike particular habitats.

Some populations will achieve more speed than others – larger birds and marsupials for example, some invertebrates that can float in water or air, plants that have very effective seed dispersal, micro-organisms that can travel via water or dust clouds, and so on. But the great majority of organisms will struggle to move quickly enough, and many whole species are going to rapidly become extinct.

Important to note that we are not talking evolutionary adaptation here. That takes thousands of years, climate change is happening over decades. Consequently, even species that can readily move are soon going to find themselves trapped, unable to move further south over water perhaps, or running out of altitude on mountains. They don’t have time to adapt.

Which brings us to fire. Following the recent horrifying bushfire in southern Tasmania there were yet again complaints about the “lack of fuel reduction” nearby. Look, I get this, really I do. Fire is my greatest fear every Summer. I dread the sight of a column of smoke nearby. I imagine, all too graphically, what a fire would do to us.

But this “fuel reduction” thing is nonsense of course. Either someone would need to have predicted 6 months earlier exactly where the fire was going to strike and burnt accordingly. Or, every square inch of forest in Australia would have to be burnt constantly.

Indeed the latter is essentially the demand of “fire managers” and their populist politician friends. Their alibi, when challenged by conservationists, is supplied by a small string of writers. Bill Gammage has done an illustrated Flannery, Tim Flannery popularised Jones, Rhys Jones publicised Norman Tindale. All four writers promoted the view that the Australian environment was not only “adapted to fire” but actually needed it, and that consequently the Aborigines had regularly burnt the whole country and we should copy them.

For some reason media and therefore the public love this nonsense, and there is never any mention of the fact that this flimsy hypothesis has been challenged over and over again in last 50 years.

When the most recent of the four, Bill Gammage, began working on his much awarded book, he sent me a paper which formed the core of his book. I wrote to him (in 2003) as follows:

“Hi Bill
Thank you for sending a reprint, that was thoughtful of you. You argue your case like a lawyer. Trouble is lawyers are obliged to present all the evidence in favour of their client, not look at it in all possible ways. You seem not to have read my book yet. You would find it interesting I think.

The problems with your case, as I see it are in summary: 1. There is no question that Aborigines knew their own patch intimately. How could they not? I know my patch pretty intimately after a few years, and I am not relying on it for food. But knowing where kangaroos are likely to be, or when the yams are ripe, is not the same as causing the kangaroos to be there or the yams to ripen.
2. You must assume that natural features have natural causes until you can prove otherwise. To revert to the legal metaphor it should be a question of innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent. Rhys Jones deliberately turned the burden of proof on its head for a very good reason – it is much harder to prove a negative than a positive. That is, apparently ‘anomalous’ patches occur for all sorts of natural reasons (of soil type, topography, rain, evaporation, biogeography, natural fire history etc). Eliminate all those and what remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. But you do have to eliminate them first.
3. Vegetation doesn’t depend on fire so much as fire depends upon vegetation.
4. You can’t rely on nineteenth century theories about ecology and anthropology. You also can’t rely totally on apparent observations, and certainly not on the context of observations. Not only were observers prisoners of their prejudices (as are we all) but they were prisoners of the political agenda of the day and of the lack of knowledge of Australia’s people and biology.

Does it matter, other than as a fascinating debating point? Yes it does, because people of ill will use theories about the past to justify actions they want to carry out anyway. The attack on the environment of Australia is now so serious that letting people who want to put cattle in the high country, and burn every inch of Australia every year, and get rid of national parks and wilderness areas, support their demands with notions about what Aborigines did, is really very dangerous.
Best Regards

So there you are, alibi destroyed. But does that matter, I hear you ask? Whatever Aborigines did, if the bush is “adapted to fire” shouldn’t we burn it?

Yesterday tv coverage of one of the recent nasty local fires ended with the obligatory comment about the bush recovering, a comment illustrated by the obligatory shot of some shoots emerging from the blackened trunk of a gum tree. But the ability to recover has nothing to do with being “adapted” or “needing to be burnt”. All species of plant can recover after disasters – if they couldn’t then long before now the planet would be as lifeless and empty as Mars. There can’t be a square metre of land that hasn’t at some stage been affected by the fast or slow disasters of fire, flood, glacier, tsunami, landslide, drought, tornado, volcanic eruption.

After the disaster some plants, not actually killed, begin regenerating. Others, surviving as seeds, begin germinating if not buried too deeply. Others, unable to survive the catastrophe themselves, will gradually return to the area via wind or birds or flowing water, or just by gradually expanding back onto the ground from surrounding areas. Different species have different abilities to do all these things, and, in addition, some can grow on bare or disturbed ground, some can not. So we have what is called a “succession” – some species arrive early (often the ones we call weed species, or those which have the capacity to become weeds), their growth modifies the environment and others begin to colonise, then finally, after the passage of a lesser or greater number of years, depending on the nature of the disaster and that of the original ecosystem, the plant community will look much as it did before it was destroyed. Although it is worth pointing out that it is very unlikely to be identical either in the totality of species present, or in their relative proportions.

Fine, good, comforting to know that however bad things look good old Mother Nature will recover. But note that I haven’t distinguished between any of the natural disasters in this regard, and that’s because there is nothing special about fire – plants are no more adapted to fire than they are to flood or tsunami. No one (I assume) in their right mind would call for the forests to be regularly flooded, or landslides triggered, nor welcome tsunamis or cyclones, just because later recovery is eventually possible? Also, and this is very important, no matter how fast and complete recovery might be after a single event, a repetition of the event in a short time would snuff out recovery and will certainly alter the composition of the new ecosystem. If you germinate all the seeds of a species, and then kill them all off before they can mature enough to set new seed, the species is gone. Again, it doesn’t matter what kind of a disaster, if it is repeated at short intervals (like, for example the recent massive floods in Queensland, just 2 years after the previous ones) the environment will be irreversibly damaged.

So we come full circle. If you want to strategically burn small areas to (possibly) help provide protection for particular places, then go right ahead. If you regularly burn all the bush any time in Australia you will change the ecosystems for the worse. If you do it when climate change is already impacting on the bush through fire, drought, flood, heat, then the damage you inflict will be infinitely greater. This is not a good thing.

PS – for other writing about fire on this blog click on the “Fire” and “History” tabs above.

Je regrette tout


Whenever a young person comes to me and says “Listen, wise old man, what career should I think about? What occupations are going to be most needed in the next twenty years?” I am always happy to help.

“Young Person” I say “you have come to the right man. There are just three occupations you should consider:

1. Plastic Surgeon specialising in tattoo removal. There are going to be hundreds of thousands of Australians, millions perhaps, who are going to reach the age of, say, sixty, and say to themselves ‘What the hell was I thinking? What is all this rubbish on my arms and legs and back and neck? Who is this person whose name is on my arm in big letters? And are those Chinese characters? Really? A tiger, a motor bike, the Southern Cross? FFS’ And then they will be desperately searching for someone who can remove all this rubbish, which once seemed like a good idea (perhaps under influence of alcohol) when they were younger and smoother, from their now wrinkly skin.

2. Financial Guru specialising in the return of privatised companies to public ownership. Australia, like a number of other countries, tattooed its economy with once public utilities turned into glossy private companies. What seemed like a good idea (under the influence of neocon think tanks) in those carefree days of the 1980s and 1990s now is revealed as a terrible error of judgement. Smart people are going to be needed to undo the thatcherite damage, and return railways, water, telecommunications, airports, wharves, hospitals, schools, energy, to public ownership.

3. Landscape ecologist specialising in revegetation. Australia has tattooed its landscape (under the influence of agribusinesses, forestry companies, coastal developers) with the scars of bulldozers and fires and chain saws. What seemed like a good idea thirty years ago has left a barren landscape, erosion, loss of biodiversity and species, and contributed to the terrible consequences of climate change, and the public will soon be demanding that sand dunes, water courses, grasslands, ruined farmland be returned as far as now possible, to the habitats they once contained (not totally possible of course, land, like skin, loses its elasticity).”

So there you have it. Where once, devil-may-care about future consequences, singing along with Edith “Je ne regrette rien”, young people and politicians gaily jumped into decisions with little thought for how hard they would be to later reverse, soon all of us will be trying to undo them now the consequences are clear. And there will be plenty of jobs for young persons.