Archive for November, 2015

With the aftermath of the horrendous terrorism attacks in Paris still resonating, world leaders will gather in that city on November 30 to seek agreement on a viable plan to arrest global warming. Understandably, the horror in Paris will be a distraction, but let’s hope that the leaders can effectively address what former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, described as the “great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our age”.

But if a plan is agreed on, it will mainly reflect economic and political considerations rather than moral or ethical ones. We are deluded if we think that world leaders and their constituencies are motivated to avoid the devastating effects of global warming because the natural world is valued for its own sake. Fine words will probably be said about humanity’s moral obligation to protect all life on the planet but what ultimately will spur action will be the value that is placed on nature as a contributor to national economic security, development and prosperity.

Proposing to act against global warming because sea level rises will damage city infrastructure (and, of course, destroy whole island nations at the same time), for example,  is not a moral argument. Neither is the warning that Global warming aglobal warming will bring increased threats to health from pollution, loss of food producing land, destruction of marine life, diminished availability of fresh water, rise in malaria, dengue fever and other vector borne global warming cdiseases and heat distress.

Sometimes the case for action against global warming is couched in terms of biodiversity protection but this is usually bracketed with utilitarian and self-interested concerns about the loss of medicinal and food resources. Only occasionally is the protection of biodiversity advanced as reason in its own right, as a moral or ethical obligation in other words.

None of this should come as a surprise because the growing disconnect between ourselves and the natural world makes it increasingly difficult for us to value that world beyond an intellectual and unemotional level. Peter Kahn sees that happening in children. He has observed what he called environmental generational amnesia. Children from generations who have known only degraded natural environments never get to know what a non-degraded environment is really like. They may voice genuine concern about atmospheric pollution, loss of forests, species extinction and the like but they have no experience of the alternatives. What they haven’t known directly and loved personally is hard to value with a “fire-in-the-belly” passion.

No risk of environmental generational amnesia for these two

No risk of environmental generational amnesia for these two

So it is, that valuing nature for its own sake depends first and foremost on having a rich and profound emotional connection with the natural world. That connection enables us to experience nature as a significant and necessary component of our lives – one that we want passionately to safeguard.

But as nature is pushed to the margins of personal and community life, we are losing sight of how much our health, productivity and wholeness continue to rely on our immediate and intimate connection with the natural world. We have separated ourselves from nature and degraded it in the dangerous delusion that we have become free of the constraints of the natural world and can aspire to transcend our biology and our natural origins (Stephen Kellert in Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World, p.187).

The Chinese city of Suzhou provides an example of where this “dangerous delusion” can take a society. I wrote about Suzhou in an earlier blog post, drawing on the sobering observations of “Zhou”, an ex-pat American living in that city. In this densely populated region, he finds a world that is completely devoid of “original” (or pre-industrial revolution) nature, where there is only one ecosystem – the ecosystem of the species homo sapiens. In that world, he says, nature exists only in its most basic philosophical form – as the earth and a running total of the actions of the earth’s inhabitants. 

Among the ways the impact of this environment plays out in the people’s perspectives and attitudes is to make conservation an alien concept. I have never met a Chinese person from Eastern China who shares my world view of environmentalism unless they have traveled abroad, Zhou says.

The “dangerous delusion” is not confined to Suzhou. I see evidence of it our own society – in for example:

  • the alarming increase in the proportion of our lives spent indoors
  • the decline in children’s outdoor play
  • the falling rates of visits to national parks and reserves in Australia, USA and elsewhere
  • the declining membership of bushwalking clubs
  • the headlong rush to high density housing with scant regard for the provision of natural spaces and amenities
  • the political power and inadequate regulation of big mining, energy, timber and some agricultural companies
  • the ignorance and indifference concerning species extinction
  • the ideological rejection of science as the only valid basis for understanding and safeguarding the natural environment
  • and of course, the shrinking backyard

How, then, can we expect our political masters and leaders to make global decisions about climate change motivated by a genuine sense of moral commitment and ethical responsibility to the natural world? Like the rest of us, they will ultimately sustain only those things that are loved and valued and if nature is not high on their list, it will inevitably be neglected or miss out altogether.

Clearly there has to be a universal transformation in our values towards the natural world. Without it, action on behalf of the planet will never be wholehearted. As the great ecologist and ethicist, Aldo Leopold, said:

There must be some force behind conservation more universal than profit. Less awkward than government, less ephemeral than sport, something that reaches into all times and spaces…something that brackets everything from rivers to raindrops, from whales to hummingbirds, from land-estates to window boxes…I can see only one such force: a respect for land as an organism.   

Well, is such a transformation possible and achievable? I believe so, and I will tell you why in my next post.



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A recent newspaper article attacked “baby boomer” empty nesters for staying in their detached houses after their families had left home instead of downsizing and making their houses available to younger people with families. As detached houses are in very short supply, so the argument goes, older singles and couples should release their free standing houses to the market. This would enable a greater number of families to enjoy the benefits of more indoor and outdoor living space.

Sounds reasonable?

Well, maybe – if it is indeed the case that younger people want bigger houses with front- and backyards.

Of course they do, you might think. Who wouldn’t want a big house with a spacious kitchen and living area and separate bedrooms for each of the kids, not to mention a garage for each of the family cars?

And as for front- and backyards, aren’t they part of the ideal modern family home? Well, they might be for some, but compare these photos of a new development on the left and an older suburb.

Loss of backyard

Loss of backyard b

Compared with the older suburb, the newer development has a much larger dwelling footprint and fewer trees. Instead of presenting as a patchwork of roofs and greenery, it is mainly roofs.

What the photos illustrate is a trend that has been going on since the early 1990s according to Griffith University’s Tony Hill. Since then, freestanding houses with big backyards have ceased to be built. Instead, the clear preference has been to build almost to the boundaries of the available land – and then enclose the site with high, opaque wooden or metal fences that provide privacy at the expense of outlook.

Freestanding houses and backyards are fast becoming a threatened species.

Even where the sizes of building blocks have remained much as they always have been (the “quarter acre” – actually eighth of an acre – block ), the same trend is occurring. People are choosing to build big and exclude green space. Here is an example from my own street.

IMG_2163The front yard will become a drive and the backyard a swimming pool surrounded by concrete or paving.

The finished house will certainly look very different from the original houses in the streetIMG_2165 like this one.

Practical or economic necessity is not all that is at work here. We are also seeing evidence of a general shift in the psyche of urban dwellers. We are succumbing to the belief that our “natural habitat” is the human-designed, developed environment. This allows us to tolerate the growing reality that the modern city is dominated by profit-driven development, marked by environmental degradation and disconnection from nature.

But as biophilic design guru, Stephen Kellert, reminds us,

This contemporary reality does not diminish people’s inherent need to affiliate with nature as a necessary basis for health, productivity, and well-being.

It does make it harder, however, to get home the message that by adopting a pro-nature approach to design and development, it is possible to restore an environment – even in our urban areas – where nature is still on hand to nurture and enrich the human body, mind and spirit.

And rescuing the suburban backyard from the threat of extinction has to be part of that process.

Many of my previous posts have directly and indirectly explored the place of the backyard in maintaining a connection with nature. A backyard is obviously critically important for building nature and outdoor activities into the lives of children – a theme of posts such as An authentic childhood, Nature play, An alarming message, and The campfire connection (with nature). For adults, having a backyard that contains a garden, even a small one, is hardly less important. The well-documented physical, psychological and social benefits of gardens and gardening are mentioned in such posts as Nature and wellness, The dream that can be a reality, and Urban density – the caution light is flashing.

Additionally, the backyard garden has a function and importance that goes beyond the interests of individuals and households. The presence of private gardens in aggregate brings significant advantages to the community, including:

  • contributing to clearing the air of pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and small particulates.
  • absorbing and sequestering atmospheric carbon.
  • increasing biodiversity – domestic gardens can exhibit a degree of planting density and variety that is not found elsewhere in urban areas, including playing fields and nature strips.
  • improving natural drainage and reducing the risk of excessive stormwater run-off.
  • combatting summer heat by lowering surface temperatures – by as much 5 degrees Celsius according to one Australian study.

Saving the backyard garden is not beyond the realms of possibility but it will involve a rethink of urban and household design by everyone, especially politicians, planners and developers. Far from being a radical move, it would be a return to traditional Australian values and the reversal of a trend that is, after all, only comparatively recent. And as Tony Hill rightly observes, It would also call upon people to relax and start enjoying life again, hardly a negative or puritanical goal.




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