Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Nature: a case of nurture or annihilate
Well, that proves it. Chaos theory brings it home. Just as a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can cause hurricanes in America – and God knows they’ve had their lepidoptera’s worth lately – a mere pulp mill in Tasmania can ripple lattes in Wentworth.
So far, on Gunns’s proposed bleached kraft pulp mill in the lovely Tamar Valley, the talk is mostly about jobs. In latte-land it’s Malcolm Turnbull’s job and whether Geoffrey Cousins wants it.
In the Apple Isle, it’s Turnbull’s job balanced against those of Gunns loggers. It’s also about a process which, many say, has been underhand and overlubricated, overbleached, overpulped and now, over here.
But neither process nor politics is really the point here. Nor, if one may be so bold, is personality. The real live-or-die-type point is our relationship with nature. Are we in it, wholly owned and implicated? Or are we on top, calling the shots? Is it “ours” like a footie team, or ours like territory? Are we entitled to use and chuck, or do we have responsibilities?
This is an ancient argument. Most thinkers, from Plato on, have tacitly presumed our superiority, focusing instead on what sets us apart from “the beasts”. Consciousness, said some. Maybe self-consciousness. Or maybe, according to some current thinkers, conscience.
Conscience? Conscience is applied morality: the operation of a right-wrong framework over and above self-interest or survival. This leads inevitably to religion which, you might think, should tell us unequivocally whether we’re animals or not.
But no. Christianity, one of the world’s most violent and progressivist religions, is usually seen as justifying human dominance; the world created for our use, and all that.
As Katharine Hepburn’s stitched-up Methodist spinster, Rose Sayer, tells Humphrey Bogart’s leech-ridden Charlie Allnut in The African Queen : “Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put on this earth to rise above”.
This, though, can go either way: justifying brattishness, like so many spoilt rich kids given top-flight BMWs well before they can drive; or it can carry a noblesse oblige overburden, stamping “duty of care” across the title deeds. But Christianity has another side, too; the mystic meekness, turn the other cheekness that insists we love nature as an equal. Call this the Assisi Syndrome.
Current research, Assisi-like, puts us ever closer to the animals. Not only do we share most of our genes with chimps, not only is most of our bodily DNA owned by other organisms, but research repeatedly shows likewise. That many birds, just like babies, learn to babble before vocalising fully. That the spatial-memory neurons in rats are very similar to our own, and so on.
On any reading, this makes us more animal than not; a view that, though compatible with religion, lends itself to the kind of secular humanism that became modernism’s orthodoxy.
For some, such as the British philosopher John Gray, there is no difference. Gray, whose compelling rant Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals argues that humans mean as much to Gaia as those sacrificial straw dogs did to the ancient Taoists, sees humanism as “a secular religion thrown together from decaying scraps of Christian myth”.
Meaning, he argues, in all its myriad guises, from religion to art or philosophy, is our increasingly ragged cuddle toy. In fact, “human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mould”.
Scary stuff. Even if you take Gaia, or indeed God, as mere metaphor, the possibility of her revenge is real. Which means the question about our relationship with nature is bleeping red. Morality has always had survival as a main ingredient.
And in survival terms, love of God, immersion in nature and enlightened self-interest all point the same way: our ongoing failure to treat nature with understanding or respect may yet unsaddle us.
Where does that leave Turnbull’s latest pulp fiction? Never mind that the proposal has been specially fast-tracked by a state whose premier paid about $100,000 to a Gunns wholly owned subsidiary to renovate his house; that the blame, so far, is properly not Turnbull’s at all but that of the Premier, Paul Lennon.
Never mind that Turnbull’s own draft (“I, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull … approve the following …”) permits 1.9 milligrams of chlorate in each of the 73 million litres of effluent pumped daily into the Tamar River, despite Gunns’s initial promise to be “totally chlorine free”. Or that it allows a sedimentary build-up of dioxins and furans of 850 picograms per kilogram, when the US Environmental Protection Agency says there is “no safe level of exposure to dioxin”.
Never mind even that its well-meant breeding protections for the wedge-tailed eagle, the white-bellied sea eagle, the spot-tailed quoll, the eastern barred bandicoot and the Mt Arthur burrowing crayfish do not prevent strewing of carrots laden with the poison 1080 around the clear-fell area.
Thing is, none of it mentions trees. The increased acreage of old-growth native forest to be clear-felled into the jaws of this ravenous mill; ancient hardwood giants to be chipped, pulped, bleached, rolled and dried before being trucked to Woollies, rehydrated with human ordure, sucked out to sea and washed ashore at Bondi or maybe (if there’s any justice) Point Piper. See what I mean about bringing it home? Float like a butterfly, sting like an E. coli.