What’s important, and what isn’t

The failure of today’s power-players to see the fundamental importance of a healthy environment is costing us dearly.

One of the pleasures of living at Hobart’s edge is the company of wild creatures – bandicoots and quolls, possums and echidnas, the odd snake and platypus, and a host of chatty feathered friends.

Most of our block isn’t fenced, which means local pademelons enjoy a free run of the place. Every hour of every day we look out on little round bodies manicuring a lawn that I haven’t had to mow for years.

They used to flee at the sight of our family dog, but she never caught a single one before dying of old age. We human residents aren’t inclined to chase them, so they now just observe us warily as we all go about our business. We’ve become a family of sorts.

I’m sure Simon Plowright felt much the same working on his documentary, Quoll Farm, screened on ABC television last month. In 2019, just ahead of the pandemic, he set up digs on an abandoned Tasmanian farm to film the wild animals that lived in and around the decaying farm buildings.

The result was a happy surprise for me. Technically amazing and brilliantly creative, it spoke to something deep inside me – to all of us, I’m sure – about our relationship with nature.

“When a person has a positive experience with a wild animal they unwittingly become a conservationist,” Plowright told the Mercury’s Linda Smith and Jessica Howard ahead of the film’s release.

I hope he’s right. Now more than ever we need people in large numbers – enough to move whole parliaments – to speak up for enacted and enforced measures that will slow, halt and reverse the economic processes that are extinguishing our wildlife and threatening our own future.

The signs are mixed. It’s good that environment minister Sussan Ley seems to support Graeme Samuel’s root-and-branch review recommending much tougher Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act provisions. But it’s not good that she hasn’t attended to this before introducing legislation for a “single stop” state-only approval process.

We really need that national oversight. States habitually ignore ecological threats when considering plans to convert “waste” land for profit. A 2019 study found that of 8 million hectares of land cleared since 2000, just 7 per cent had been referred for federal EPBC Act assessment.

Cutting green tape is the standard mantra for resource industries keen to get on with extracting minerals and wood from the land, or large-scale agriculture seeking to clear land they insist is theirs, or fish farmers wanting control over in-shore waters.

Depressingly, Samuel’s review found that far from increasing conservation of species and ecosystems, the EPBC Act over its lifetime had seen a general environmental decline.

As Canberra’s legislators consider the future of environmental laws, uppermost in their minds ought to be those treasured things in nature and what they represent: future security. But I fear not.

In an address to the UN last week the renowned British naturalist David Attenborough said that the loss of nature is a global security threat. He said we must question the values that underpin our economic models and “put a value on nature that goes far beyond money”.

Yet decision-makers continue to insist that mining, logging, land-clearing and fish-farming must come first. Closing ears and minds to everything but the whispers of industry lobbyists, they fail to see that our visceral response to seeing quolls at play, like our response to a new baby or a death in the family, tells us all we need to know about what is important.

One thing clear from all this is that we – or at least our governments – have not made the connection between the continued survival of those cute animals we say we love and the wellbeing of our own kind – especially the young people in our lives.

In times long gone we drew on what we observed above and around us to give shape and meaning to our lives. The patterns and slow movements of spots in the night sky determined our fates. A rainbow represented hope or the great Creator. We saw divinity in animals, plants and landforms.

Now we explain our lives in terms of man-made entities like the economy or the nation. Unlike the old stories, our new ones are detached from nature. The values and truths of the power-players in government and business are to be found in financial bottom lines and economic forecasts. To them and many others, nature is a mere sideshow.

That could not be more wrong. The error is costing us dearly, and the cost is compounding.

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