Biodiversity is our lifeblood, and we are bleeding

“…never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee” – John Donne

Regular walkers on Hobart’s mountain tracks will know this scene: a small, speckled, brown-coloured bird hopping along a few metres ahead. If you stand still or walk slowly, it will remain those few metres away, apparently unconcerned.

This is a Bassian thrush, a bird I’ve become quite attached to over many years. It’s an Australian native songbird which the global extinction “red list” marks as being safe at present because it’s seen and heard in many forests across south-eastern Australia. I do hope this continues; the forest I love would be much the poorer without it. But I fear otherwise.

Losing habitat is the most common path to extinction for any species. Already vulnerable to land-clearing and feral cats, the Bassian thrush must now survive a slowly drying habitat, in which fires can do untold damage to species that could comfortably withstand “normal” wildfire.

Last summer’s fires were an “ecological disaster”, the Threatened Species Commissioner, Sally Box, told the Bushfire Royal Commission last week. She said that of the 1,800 species of plants and animals on the national threatened list, 300 were in the path of the fires, and some of them had their entire range burnt.

Like all species, humans depend on many other species for food, shelter and wellbeing. A single animal that we can see and relate to, like the Bassian thrush, is a tiny outcrop on a mountain of life forms that it needs to survive. Biodiversity is the main indicator of the health of these relationships, and its study is the work of ecologists.

Last October, early in our latest and most devastating fire season, environment minister Sussan Ley announced a statutory 10-year review of the cornerstone of federal environmental law, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, passed under John Howard’s government in 1999.

This is the second such review. The first, completed in 2009, was led by a former senior public servant and supported by an expert panel which included an ecologist and an environmental law specialist, along with a former judge and an energy industry leader.

The expert panel for the current review, led by business academic Graeme Samuel, comprises an Indigenous representative, a petroleum industry leader, a senior public servant and an academic specialising in environmental law and policy. There is no ecologist; not even a scientist.

In announcing the review, Ley argued that the Act was too complex, causing “unnecessary delays in reaching decisions”, and that these delays cost around $300 million a year. She asked Samuel to identify ways to streamline environmental approval processes.

Some developers have told the Productivity Commission that the power of final approval should be stripped from the federal minister and given to relevant state and territory ministers. Ley’s junior colleague, resources minister Keith Pitt, told the Guardian in April that while Australia had “some of the highest environmental standards in the world”, approval processes were being held up for years by “cashed-up activists”.

Millions of hectares of land clearing since 2000, never assessed under the Act, seriously undermines Pitt’s claims about environmental standards, but the killer blow is Australia’s world-leading rate of species extinction. Far from being a leader, we are an environmental laggard.

Yet the Morrison government, with a view to removing legal impediments to clearing land, building a road or starting a mine, has indicated it will introduce amendments to the Act even before the review panel hands down its final report, expected in October.

After the fires the government is rightly nervous about public opinion around environmental management. The universal condemnation of Rio Tinto’s heedless destruction of two ancient Pilbara rock shelters last week was a timely reminder that development projects should always face rigorous scrutiny.

It is unthinkable that humans would want to continue to subject what is left of natural habitat to the level and scale of depredation we have seen over the past half-century or so. We need every legislator, bureaucrat, miner, forester, farmer, land user – everyone – to understand that the wellbeing of natural systems and species must always come before “developing” natural areas.

In the wake of the fires it will be starkly obvious to the Samuel review, even without a scientific specialist, that climate change is already devastating biodiversity in this country. I believe the review should go further and find that preserving biodiversity must always take precedence over development.

Climate change has already begun to assert itself, visibly and loudly, but biodiversity loss – at least equal in its impact on us – is never anything but silent. The dead make no sound.

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