Fox and I: a friendship of free spirits

In Fox and I, her remarkable book about life in a tiny corner of Montana’s Big Sky country, Catherine Raven quotes a passage written by a Hungarian biologist, Albert Szent-Györgyi.

Szent-Györgyi, who won a Nobel prize for isolating vitamin C, decided late in life he had taken a wrong turn in trying to understand life by dissecting it into ever-smaller pieces. “I ended up with atoms and electrons which have no life at all,” he said. “Somewhere alone the line, life had run out through my fingers.”

For decades Raven carried with her a photocopy of that quote, which guided her work as a biologist, teacher and author of school textbooks. More than that, she has lived its message.

Fox and I is her story of what happened after she met a wild red fox. As she sat on the steps of her small home waving away an annoying fly, she realised that the fox had laid down within a few metres of her, watching her and the fly. They made eye contact, and he remained while she performed a show-and-tell with odd trinkets from her pockets.

He revisited her at the same time the next day. To hold his interest, she took to reading from The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. She would pause at intervals to allow the fox to have his say, as it were, before resuming the story. Their meetings continued through a year and into the next. 

This was a relationship of equals. The fox had instigated the friendship by approaching her and continuing to make the daily journey to her house. He remained simply “Fox”; bestowing a name would be to assert some sort of ownership. 

In all their time together she never touched him. “You don’t just reach out and grab someone because you can or because he’s smaller than you,” she says. “That’s one important difference between a pet and a friend.”

Like all friendships it had benefits for both sides. He provided her with companionship, while she was for him a convenient friend whose hands enabled her to do things for him that he couldn’t, like managing plant cover to make it easier for him to catch voles.

They played games. Chicken was one, in which they moved towards each other and the first to back off from the other was chicken. She always lost, fearful of his sharp teeth. Or hide-the-egg, where she had to find an egg, supplied by her, which he’d hidden in full view. She never did. He gave her every indication of getting pleasure from winning.

Just as we get to know the ways of our human companions, Raven learned and admired the fox’s nonverbal communication skills. “Actions and eyes; subtext without text” was how she described his glare when displeased about something she did. 

Not one for making friends easily, Raven enjoyed her own company. She sensed some of her peers looked down on her for “unscientific” engagement with this wild creature. Her scientific training taught observing, recording and analysing animals in the wild, not making friends with them, but she could not bring herself to end it.

But this is not just about a fox and his human friend. The two share their high-altitude desert patch, with its stunted plants, poor soil and scarce water, with a huge array of animals from elk and deer, foxes and cougars, eagles and magpies, down to the minuscule – all subjects of Raven’s scientific curiosity.

Raven celebrates this diversity in numerous passages of her book, describing the intricate web of relationships between species –foxes and magpies, bluebirds and blackbirds, and all of them with the various plants that made up their habitat – in prose that soars and dips like birds in flight.

“Why do different species of birds huddle together?” she asks. “It’s the wrong question. Lots of wild animals are less finicky about whom they socialise with than we are. The right question is Why don’t people socialise with [wild] animals?”

Many of us do, of course, each in our own way. But Raven’s concerns are about humanity as a whole, and they are shared with many students of animal behaviour: Carl Safina, Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal, to name a few.

We have come to see humanity as apart from nature, a mindset which in this age of automated technology has created bubbles so impervious that whole populations of our species can live entire lives inside them. Now, as the bubbles pop around us, Raven invites us to experience the terrors and joys of the world outside. It can’t happen soon enough.

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Can we plan for climate change? Covid suggests not.

Let’s be blunt: Omicron is going to infect huge numbers of Australians. Some of us may not even know we’ve had it while others certainly will. A small number of us may suffer longer-term health impacts, or die.

There are now various online guides, informed by infectious disease experts, to tell us what we need to do if (or when) a member of our household tests positive, requiring all in the home to isolate for seven days. The to-do list is truly sobering.

In a nutshell, we’re advised to act as if everyone is infected. Limit visitors, wear a mask in shared areas, wash hands often, and keep sleeping and bathroom usage separate. Where a bathroom is shared (as applies to most of us), wipe down with disinfectant between each use. Seal gaps around internal doors while opening windows to maximise air flow.

The virus will inevitably get around some or most of these defences, for the simple reason that we’re not robots but living, breathing, irrational, fallible humans. 

As are those who govern us. Premier Peter Gutwein, with other state and territory leaders, was persuaded by prime minister Scott Morrison and NSW premier Dominic Perrottet that to keep borders closed would kill the economy. Their choice to open up for Christmas appealed to a few, but to most of us it was foolish, crazy even – and all too human.

The drama of Omicron has supplanted climate change as the topic of the moment. But like creeping old age – or a hidden Covid spread – gradual shifts in the state of the planet can take unexpected dramatic turns. Sea level is a case in point.

Current attention of sea level scientists is on one of the world’s largest ice streams, Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. A five year research project by top-level US and UK government agencies reported in November that cracks in the floating ice shelf holding back the glacier’s flow indicated the ice shelf may be gone in five years.

That would not cause a sudden jump in sea level, currently rising an average of 3.6 mm a year, because only the loss of land-based ice affects sea levels. But its breakup will allow Thwaites to flow more rapidly, and because nearly all the West Antarctic ice sheet sits on rocks below sea level, warming seas can melt it from below.

This raises the possibility that very large parts of the ice sheet will break off and float away, causing much faster sea level rise – the worst possible nightmare for coastal cities and communities everywhere.

Repeated incidents of coastal inundation and erosion are evidence that sea level rise is already in play. For low-lying communities on oceanic islands or river deltas it’s a matter of life and death; in Australia it’s measured in money.

In mid-November the Insurance Council of Australia released a report estimating the 50-year cost of adequate coastal protection and adaptation projects at $30 billion. A growing number of exposed properties in Australia, says the report, will become uninhabitable. 

With no insurance backup, property owners will put local authorities under increasing pressure to invest in protection infrastructure. But, say the insurers, any kind of help will become untenable as the pace of sea level rise grows. 

Clever online tools like CoastAdapt and Smartline have helped to build a picture of the challenge, but that work is stalled from lack of funding. This is despite decades of advice from scientists and insurers of the dangers rising seas pose to coastal plains, home of most of the world’s people and a major source of food.

Dealing with sea level rise requires rolling out well-considered plans over decades, anathema to today’s leaders who focus a limited attention span on staying in power. Pre-Covid, they routinely let it be known that they were strong, capable, knowing. But the contagion laid bare their hubris. It is now glaringly obvious, day after day, that they make it up as they go along.

The Covid-climate double whammy calls for a new democratic compact that recognises the failure of neoliberal capitalism while understanding that strength in leadership comes from candour, openness and cooperation. We need leaders to admit that they need help. For egos the size of theirs, this will be really tough. It probably won’t happen.

In media briefings about Covid, Victorian health minister Martin Foley presents as an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances – candid, open, receptive, diffident, uncharismatic – just the kind of consultative style we need. May the ordinary folk, the Martin Foleys, emerge to take their place in history.

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Politicians struggling in the face of stark reality

If there’s a poster boy for a bigger Tasmanian parliament, it would have to be the minister for pretty-well-everything, Roger Jaensch MP, in charge of aboriginal affairs, state growth, heritage, climate change, local government and planning, and the environment.

One of the items on this long list, climate change, has been relegated to the bottom drawer for far too long. Far from being one of a grab bag of responsibilities, it is in truth a full-time job – not just for a single politician but for entire governments.

Now this badly-overloaded minister is being asked to shepherd through the parliament a much-needed overhaul of Tasmania’s 2008 Climate Change (State Action) Act – a modest piece of legislation back then; now embarrassingly inadequate.

Avoiding or de-emphasising climate change as an issue has been the chosen approach of Hodgman and Gutwein governments, as recently as 2020 when it successfully opposed a climate emergency motion in parliament. Changes to climate were subtle and criticisms easily deflected, making it possible to hold positions at odds with reality. 

Since Black Summer and the arrival of Covid – especially with fast-spreading Omicron – it is much harder for any leader to sustain false narratives. Having first conceded that a global contagion trumped business-as-usual, Peter Gutwein and other Australian leaders now argue that business – or “living with the virus” – must resume, with unknown consequences.

For decades that same mindset, business-as-usual at whatever cost, has determined government responses to climate change. They said limiting fossil fuel use would damage the economy, so they held back – until a growing groundswell of popular concern forced their hand.

The 64 submissions received after the new draft bill was released just over a month ago indicate a high level of public interest in what looks set – Covid aside – to become the dominant policy issue for the foreseeable future.

The 58 publicly accessible documents are the usual mixed bag of institutional, business, community, group and individual submissions, some arguing for particular interests, others taking a wider, public perspective. The common theme is that the state needs to act.

Two stand out for the detail of their analysis, one by the University of Tasmania’s Public Policy Exchange and the other a joint effort from two voluntary groups, Climate Tasmania and the Tasmanian Independent Science Council, comprised mostly of scientists and others with expertise in climate, ecology and environment. I am a member of both latter groups but had no part in preparing their submission.

The submissions differ in detail but agree on fundamental principles around the integrity and transparency of emissions accounting and reporting; social equity and avoidance of harm; and collaboration across and between government, parliament, community and business. They agree that Tasmania should separate land-use emissions, mainly to do with forest carbon, from gross emissions, mainly from fossil fuels.

While appearing receptive to new ideas – it has undertaken to consider future generations and to consult the public on ways to cut emissions, for instance – the Gutwein government has made no significant shift on the substantive issues.

But the decisions Roger Jaensch and the rest of government must make around climate change are exceptionally complex and far-reaching. To be effective, the new legislation must have the support of the widest possible cross-section of Tasmanians. 

At a public forum late last year the minister bluntly rejected an audience suggestion that the government involve the whole parliament in shaping the new climate legislation. That, he said, would be to abdicate its responsibility to govern.

No, minister. Abdicating responsibility is failing to grasp that if this state is to survive the most difficult transition in its history, its government will have to reach out to all quarters – even to political opponents. Yielding power can be strength.

Applause for his initial Covid response persuaded Peter Gutwein to break a string of four-year parliaments with an early election. His hard-won reputation for openness vanished with that subterfuge – for the sake of a few more years of parliamentary majority. Just like the smartypants stupidity of the 1998 Labor-Liberal deal to cut the size of parliament, which delivered us overloaded ministers, less accountability and more scope for corruption. 

The pain of governing under the Covid cloud is plain to see whenever the premier fronts a media conference. Yet like his climate change minister and every leader of every Australian government, he can’t countenance reaching out to people he may not always agree with.

But with climate looming on top of the Covid crisis, that’s what he has to do. If he doesn’t he and his government will break, and everyone will be losers.

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