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Posts Tagged ‘conservation’

In a scene from his latest documentary, Planet Earth 2, Sir David Attenborough is surveying a natural landscape from the basket of a floating hot-air balloon.  “It’s impossible not to be impressed by the sheer grandeur, and splendour and power of the natural world”, he remarks.

That, a cynic might say, is the kind of thing you would expect him to say, given that he has been rewarded handsomely, materially and otherwise, for spending much of his life immersed in the natural world. Surely his exceptionally privileged career as a naturalistic and documentary maker has given him a romanticised view of nature (some might say).

Even a less cynical person might be tempted to think that Sir David’s enthusiasm is a unique product of the extraordinary opportunities he has had to revel in the “grandeur”, “splendour” and “power” of the natural world.

There is undoubtedly some truth in this view, but it is far from the full picture.

The biological foundations of Sir David’s passion for nature are shared by everyone. We all come into the world with a brain that has an inherent disposition to seek and to enjoy nature. This disposition, known scientifically as biophilia, contains the potential for a profoundly enriching relationship with nature. We have to accept, however, that biophilia is thought to be a “weak” biological tendency, meaning that regular and positive interactions with the natural world are necessary if it to flourish in the human psyche and behaviour.

Fortunately, it does not necessarily have to be the world of wild nature that Sir David has experienced so extensively. Biophilia can be nurtured in all sorts of “green spaces”, including gardens, parks and other forms of domesticated nature. Even representations of nature in photos and paintings are able to provide some of the emotional building blocks of biophilia.

The building process works like this:

 

  • we have an encounter with nature in some form (flower, native animal, sunset, panorama, seascape, for example);
  • in response, brain chemicals, notably dopamine, trigger positive or “feel-good” emotions such as pleasure, joy, tranquillity, calmness and wonder; and
  • these pleasant and rewarding feelings motivate us to repeat the experience.

 

It is true to say that the process cultivates a form of subtle addiction. It tends to make our contacts with nature “self-multiplying” – the more contacts we have, the more we seek. That is why people who have gardens, compared with those without, are more likely to visit parks and other green spaces, and to take their children with them. And the children who are exposed to green spaces in this and other ways are more likely to become nature seeking and nature valuing adults.

A great thing about the process is that it requires little conscious management by us, apart from putting ourselves in touch with nature is some appropriate way to begin with. Once we have initiated a nature experience, our senses, emotions and unconscious cognitive processes take over – often in ways that range well beyond simply being “impressed”.

The “grandeur” of nature, for example, can

 

  • provide a profound sense of satisfaction and joy
  • transport us from the here-and-now to places beyond ourselves
  • make us kinder and more sociable
  • give us a sense of unity or “at-one-ment” with nature, others and the cosmos in general.

 

The eminent Australian biologist, the late Professor Charles Birch defined “at-one-ment” as the “experience of oneness with ourselves, with others, with the world, with the universe and with God”. It is, he says, the “most ultimate encounter”, the “opposite of being adrift and separate from the rest of existence”.

Urban environments can never lead us to at-one-ment, but nature can.

Possibly (and hopefully), it is a deep, intuitive inkling of this fact that is at work motivating some city dwellers to pay more for accommodation near green spaces. In research conducted in Vienna, Dr Shanaka Herath of the University of Wollongong found that apartment prices dropped by 0.13 – 0.26 % for every 1% increase in distance from the nearest green space. Similar findings have been reported from cities in the UK, Canada and South Korea, he says. Judging by anecdotal reports from buyers agents, the same is true of Australian capital cities with some buyers prepared to pay up to 10% more for homes with greenery around them.

Maybe this is telling us that biophilia is a more robust trait than it is generally thought to be.

Even if that is the case, we still must heed the call made by Sir David in Planet Earth 2:

Now, over half of us live in an urban environment. My home, too, is here, in the city of London. Looking down on this great metropolis [as he was at the time], the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking.

But it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world.

Yet, it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend. And surely, [it is] our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.

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In Japan, this remarkable object could well be a wedding gift not because of its obvious delicate beautyIMG_0294 cropped but for what it signifies – love that lasts a lifetime.

Known as Venus’ Flower Basket, it is actually the skeleton of a sponge (Genus Euplectella) that is found on the ocean floor, at a depth of 100 – 1000 metres, off Japan, the Philippines and other western Pacific countries including Australia.

Looking more like a vase than a basket, the skeleton is made from glass produced by the sponge itself from silica it extracts from the surrounding sea water. Yes, this simple creature is able to convert dissolved silica into glass as genuine as any that human technology can produce from sand and quartz.

Not only that, the sponge fashions that glass into a structure that has the rigidity to withstand the huge pressures of deep water. It manages this by combining amazingly efficient microscopic building blocks called spicules (Think of three spikes intersecting at right angles to one another) into the geometrically elegant network that you can see in the photo. Fragile as it may appear, the resulting structure is incredibly strong and resistant to cracking. Architects and engineers have studied it in search of ways to build more robust buildings, especially skyscrapers.

Engineers in the field of fibre optics are also looking to the Venus’ Flower Basket for guidance, and in particular at the hair-like fibres at the base of the skeleton. These fibres anchor the sponge to the ocean floor. They also act like optical fibres transmitting light along their length. The intriguing thing is that they do this better than the industrial fibre optic cables currently available for telecommunication and other applications. Additionally, the sponge’s fibres are more flexible than the man-made variety. What is more, the sponge makes its fibres at very low temperatures using natural materials – a process scientists hope someday to mimic because the existing manufacturing process requires very high temperatures and has other limitations.

Beautiful as the skeletal Venus’ Flower Basket is, it pales in comparison to the living animal, which actually glows in the darkness of the ocean depths. The sources of this light are bioluminescent bacteria that live in the cells of the sponge. Attracted by the glow, male and female shrimp larvae enter the central cavity or atrium of the sponge, happily staying there to feed on the left-overs and waste from the sponge’s diet of plankton.

By the time the sponge has finished growing, the top of the atrium has been sealed, trapping the now mature shrimps inside. But everyone is happy. The shrimp have a perfect “love nest” for life, a secure home and a reliable source of food, and the sponge has a couple of resident cleaners. It is even an ideal set-up for the shrimps’ offspring, as these are small enough to exit through the walls of mum and dad’s sponge and set off on their own to find a mate and make a home for themselves in another sponge.

So there you have it. Because of a shrimp love affair, the Euplectella skeleton has come to be associated with Venus, the goddess of love, and to be adopted as a symbol of a happy married life.

But Euplectella, the living creature, symbolises something of much greater significance for human well-being and advancement. As mentioned, this simple creature has found the solution to technical problems that continue to tax human ingenuity, making it both an example and a symbol of the “genius of nature”. Engineers and scientists look to Euplectella as a source of insight and inspiration, valuing and respecting it for what it can teach them.

Surrounded as we are by the products of human ingenuity and creativity, it is easy to think that the problems of existence, big and small, will be solved only by the human mind. This view ignores the reality that nature has been addressing the same or similar problems for 3.8 billion years – and producing extraordinarily efficient, enduring and graceful solutions. We are privileged to live in a very competent universe.

One of the smartest things humankind can do in the quest for solutions to the problems that face us is to first “ask nature”. Doing this is far easier than you might imagine as there is a fascinating website that can be consulted by anyone. I urge you to go to this site right now. When you are there, try sampling what the site offers by exploring this question: How does nature maintain community? Do this by selecting the following links: (1) maintain community (left-hand column), (2) co-operate and compete  (central column), (3)within the same species (central column), (4) collaborating for group decisions: honeybees (right-hand column). This will lead you to a summary of the work being done by a team of scientists and engineers at the University of Illinois looking at ways to improve human collaboration during disaster relief efforts. And where are they looking for inspiration? – to honeybees.

This is one of almost 1800 examples you can find on the site of an approach to innovation and development called bio-mimetics. As its label suggests, the approach involves the conscious emulation of the forms, systems and processes of nature.

Perhaps the best known product of bio-mimetics is the Velcro fastener. The Swiss engineer, George de velcro burrMestral, developed Velcro by adapting the system some burrs use to cling to cloth and fur.

More than a very wise problem-solving strategy for scientists, engineers and other innovators, bio-mimetics is also a way of valuing and respecting nature for everyone. An underpinning philosophy of bio-mimetics is that nature has more to teach us about living well, harmoniously, sustainably and gracefully on the planet than we could ever imagine.

Humans are masters at exploiting the material resources of nature and dangerously abusing the planet in the process. We need urgently to extend our recognition and appreciation of, and our readiness and willingness to be guided by, nature’s knowledge, genius and wisdom.

Much is being said at the moment about building STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Manufacturing) capabilities within our society. The philosophy and method of Bio-mimetics need to be at the heart of that undertaking.

The beak and head profile of the Kingfisher solved the turbulence problem for the bullet train

The beak and head profile of the Kingfisher solved the turbulence problem for the bullet train

It is also essential that society as a whole becomes much more aware and respectful of nature’s capacity to inform, inspire and guide our scientists, technologists, engineers and manufacturers. This will require, among other things, the expansion of environmental education in our schools and vastly enriched communication between scientists, especially those in the natural sciences, and the rest of society.

In a following post, you will meet a gifted artist who is using her talents to help Australian scientists share their message – something to look forward to, believe me.

 

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Please do not read any further until you have clicked on this link  and discovered (or re-visited) a very different and remarkable website and blog.

Josh Gross, the creator of the site and author of the blog, has channelled his love of nature in a way

Josh hiking on Mount Ranier 2012

Josh hiking on Mount Ranier 2012

that is both unique and inspirational. More than that, he has made his blog a powerful advocacy tool on behalf of a number of species of endangered or threatened animals. Needless to say, I was both delighted and honoured when Josh agreed to write a guest post for ourgreengenes. He has entitled his post “My personal relationship with nature: loss and recovery”. You will read how he had the common adolescent experience of disengagement from nature. But you will also be intrigued and even surprised by the experiences that restored his connection and indeed took it to new heights.(Make certain you follow all the links.)    

Beginnings

My personal relationship with nature has not been entirely smooth. As a child I was enamored with the natural world, as many children are. But unlike some children I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to foster this connection.

Northeast Ohio, where I grew up, used to be full of wetlands. This restored pond at Carlisle Reservation is a snippet of what once was.

Northeast Ohio, where I grew up, used to be full    of wetlands. This restored pond at Carlisle Reservation is a snippet of what once was.

My father frequently took me to one of the excellent metro parks near my house, which are oases in the sprawling Greater Cleveland metropolitan area. There was one park in particular that contained an enclosed wildlife observation area replete with bird feeders; as well as several miles of trails. I spent many hours there watching the birds, walking in the woods, and interrogating the naturalists.

In addition to exploring my local parks, I was an avid reader as a child. The vast majority of the books I checked out from the library concerned animals. I probably read every children’s book (and a few adult books) they had about wolves. But reading about exotic creatures paled in comparison to the thrill of seeing them at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

When I was young, I enjoyed nothing more than going to the zoo. Wolves, cheetahs, lions, tigers; all the animals I was enchanted by were there. Then, sometime in middle school I visited the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s RainForest location for the first time. I suddenly found myself immersed in an environment richer than any I had experienced before. Obviously it was artificial, but the RainForest was real enough to capture my imagination. I can honestly say that my childhood visits to the zoo helped make me who I am today.

Distractions

My love for the natural world never completely left me. But during late adolescence it faded into the background. It is at this point in Western society that one must decide how to go about scrounging for the social construct of money. I had a dilemma: my greatest interest was wildlife but my disposition and talents strongly favored people-oriented work. At first I tried to take the natural sciences route. But I found social science courses to be much more enjoyable, as I was captivated by the mystery of why we humans do what we do. Therefore I ended up majoring in psychology, and eventually entered a Master’s program for Clinical Mental Health Counseling. But it would not last.

Rediscovery

I never forgot my first love. I always returned to natural spaces whenever I needed to think, and my free time became ever more filled with television programs that featured wild areas. The more my educational life was consumed by Gestalt and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the more I escaped into the electronic world of Survivorman and River Monsters . I also kept working for the same parks district I frequented as a child, even though I knew it was in the ‘wrong’ field. It was as if my unconscious mind was aware of something I was consciously ignoring.

Then the façade came crashing down. My forays into electronic procrastination led me to watch several documentaries featuring the non-profit group Panthera. So out of curiosity I ordered a copy of Alan Rabinowitz’s An Indomitable Beast . I do not know why, but this book affected me like few others. It left me enamored with this creature, the jaguar, and I had to know everything about it. In a fit of desperation I e-mailed Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity , asking if there was anything I could do to aid in jaguar recovery in the United States. Unbelievably, he replied.

Since I was enrolled in graduate school, Michael suggested I could use the educational resources at my disposal to locate a number of hard-to-find texts. The goal was to uncover references to jaguars outside of their commonly accepted historical range in the U. S.

This work enthralled me like nothing before; everything about it felt right. I had to find a way to contribute more to jaguar conservation in the future. Imagine my relief, then, when frantic googling revealed that there is such a thing as conservation psychology . It might actually be possible for me to apply psychological knowledge to biodiversity conservation. Not only that, but there are actually graduate programs at respected universities that can prepare me to enter this field. The stars had aligned.

For my friend Mopana, who informed me that Ladies Love Purple. I recommend you check out her excellent blog!

For my friend Mopana, who informed me that Ladies Love Purple. I recommend you check out her excellent blog!

Moving Forward

Thanks to a combination of hard work, fortuitous circumstances, and human kindness; I am set to become part of Humboldt State University’s Environment & Community program this August. Not only will I get to study the human dimensions of conservation, but I will be living in an area inhabited by both people and mountain lions (Puma concolor).

My blog at thejaguarandallies.com has also opened up new possibilities. As it turns out, I have some skill as a writer. Given the importance of communicating scientific information to the public in a way that is both accurate and engaging, I cannot help but wonder if this will become a more prominent part of my life.

Conclusion

My story contains a few key points. First of all, urban green spaces should not be taken for granted. It was my local metro parks district that first allowed me to nurture my love for nature. Second, despite their drawbacks, zoos can have important benefits. My childhood visits to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo enhanced my fascination with wildlife and taught me about the challenges they face. Lastly, every form of communication should be exploited in order to create a more sustainable future. Nature documentaries, River Monsters, and especially Survivorman served as lifelines for me when my relationship with nature became a peripheral concern. Live wildlife programs like Wild Safari Live are the future of this genre.

My relationship with nature has not been smooth, and at one point I nearly lost it. But unforeseen events helped me rediscover my greatest passion, and I finally feel like I am on the right path.

 

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Trees New York

A 2007 study found that for every $1 spent annually on planting and maintaining New York’s street trees, there was $5.60 return. Some of this return was in the form of environmental benefits such as summer energy savings from cooling effects, air quality improvement and reduced water run-off. But almost half of the benefits came from increased property values and the associated growth of rate and tax revenue.

In a similar study using data from the city of Brisbane, Lyndal Plant found that street trees generated property value benefits of $29 million – more than twice the cost of planting and maintaining them.

Findings like these are bound to capture the attention of planners, developers and politicians because they make a “business case” for investing in urban greenery. And in our materialistic world, having a strong business case is a powerful incentive. It is all well and good to parade the environmental, health and lifestyle benefits of green infrastructure, but in a dollar-driven society like ours, what counts more often than not are “bank-account” benefits.

Well, if this is the way of the world, why not welcome the emergence of a compelling business case for greening our streets, apartment complexes and commercial centres? Why not go further and push business arguments for creating and maintaining national parks, for expanding venues that attract nature-based recreation and for greening work places to make employees healthier, happier and, “Ta-ra”, more productive?

Why not Indeed!

Well I can think of one very good reason why we need to use business arguments with great caution especially where nature is concerned.

That doyen of finance and economic commentators, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Ross Gittens, wrote about this risk only a day or so ago. He was commenting primarily on the way deteriorating business ethics and behaviour are eroding trust. One reason for the decline, he says, is the growth of economic fundamentalism or rationalism. At the core of economic fundamentalism is the assumption that the market finds the best resolution of the competing self-interests of sellers and buyers, producers and consumers. It also assumes that the market mechanism assures the most economically efficient use of resources.

But there is a moral problem with these assumptions. As Gittens says, by emphasising monetary value, economic fundamentalism views all things, including “labour” as resources to be exploited, as grist for the market mill. Worse than that, he reminds us, economic fundamentalism has had the effect of “sanctifying selfishness”.

When I put my interests ahead of other people’s, I’m not being greedy or self-centred or anti-social; I’m just being rational.

Economic fundamentalism, like ideological extremism of every kind tends to be blinding. It easily blinds us to values that lie beyond the economic or materialistic sphere. Not only that, economic fundamentalism is incapable of putting a value of many things including virtually all aspects of nature. The fact that a value has been put on urban tree plantings may seem to say otherwise, but any attempt to assess nature in dollar terms is doomed to be difficult, dangerous and demeaning.

  • It’s difficult because it presupposes complete knowledge, when in fact our understanding of what natural products and services could be useful is very incomplete.
  • It’s dangerous because economic calculations ignore social concerns about who benefits and who loses. It is dangerous also because market-determined values fluctuate as economic conditions change.
  • It’s demeaning because it is an invitation to act with ignorance and arrogance. How presumptuous it is to assume that natural beauty, serenity, tranquility or wonder, for example, can be measured in monetary terms!

Unfortunately, economic terms are the ones that dominate present-day public discourse. There are conservation and other organizations in our own society striving to change that discourse – to have all things in nature, including ourselves, seen primarily as ends and much less as means. All such organisations warrant our support.

At the personal level, we can help support the change by modelling, advocating and promoting the “I-you” rather than the “I-it” relationship with nature. And we can certainly resist trivialising nature by discussing it in marketplace terms. We do well to heed what the noted environmental ethicist Aldo Leopold said:

We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.

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The annual report from WordPress (my blog’s webhost) has just turned up in my email. The report tells me how many views my posts attracted during 2015, how many visitors dropped by, the countries they were from, the most viewed posts and so on. The report points out that many of the posts are still being viewed, prompting the suggestion that the topics of these posts might be worth revisiting. Always open to wise suggestions, I have decided to do just that in this post – but with a twist.

The most viewed post by a country mile was one I published in 2014, soon after the birth of my great granddaughter, Zoe Margaret. In that post, The World I Would Like for Zoe, I reflect on the world that I hope will be hers – not so much the world in general but more the part nature might play in her life and, indeed, in the lives of everyone. The post was written very much in the “I have a dream” vein, the dream being for a world where Zoe can forge a deep and mutually nurturing friendship with the natural world. I want this for her because, as a human being, this is a relationship she is meant to have and also needs. It is her birthright no less.

Needless to say, observing Zoe’s delight in discovering the natural world is a great joy. Recently she Gang Gang bfound Gang Gang Cockatoos and other native birds very much to her liking. She rapidly learnt to recognize the sound, “gang gang”, and to look for the birds where they usually sit.

Zoe is able to discover nature because her family constantly provides her with opportunities to do so, and she is growing up near abundant natural bushland and urban greenery.

On both counts she is a very fortunate little girl. The natural world is becoming a resource for her mental, emotional, social and spiritual life.

The understanding that nature is an essential resource for human all-round wellbeing is accepted by many but not by all. Indeed there are vested interests, ideologies and mind-sets that find such an idea threatening – even contemptuous.

I was reminded of this by an email I received just a day or two ago. The email was from Michael Keats, one of three bushwalkers who have dedicated themselves to raising awareness of as well as protecting beautiful landscapes and ecosystems close to Sydney. A visit to their website is highly recommended – even to my overseas readers because the site contains many stunning photographs. These photos (from their website) of the Gardens of Stone provide a glimpse of the beauty that Michael and co want to share and preserve for posterity.

Pagodas explorers

Garden of Stone pagoda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A great concern is that many of these unique formations are being threatened by mining operations that can undermine the structures causing them to collapse.Gardens of stone threat

This is an excerpt from Michaels’s message:

I have authored over a dozen books on bushwalking and made a number of appearances before PAC [Planning Assessment Commission] enquiries to try and prevent the destruction of bushland for Coal Mines. In my submissions and personal appearance I have emphasised the spiritual value of the bush to restore and replenish the human spirit and suggested that resources should be committed to opening up areas such as the Newnes Plateau to bushwalking and discovery rather than mining. Whilst I have not been laughed out of court, sniggers from coal miners and pro coal advocates are common. I walk twice a week and go camping whenever I can. The stimulation to my life from close contact with nature is amazing.

IMG_0338 fixedWhile some of the magnificent areas that Michael refers to are in wilderness areas, others are readily accessible. I have been visiting these areas for over 40 years and share Michael’s passion for them. My life would have been the poorer without the Newnes Plateau and the Gardens of Stone.

My fervent hope is that Zoe will get to visit such life-enriching places as often as I have.

That is why I am immensely grateful for what Michael and his associates are doing. They are true “biophilic crusaders” – people who are fostering both a love of nature (biophilia) and a commitment to the preservation of natural environments.

I am writing this on January 1, 2016 – as good a day as any for New Year resolutions. With biophilic crusaders in mind, I resolve to make 2016 a year when I do more to support conservation organisations and “naturalising” projects (projects aimed at transforming urban spaces into pockets of grassland and trees).

If this resolution resonates with you, why not join me?

Happy New Year, Bonne Année, Manigong Bagong Taon, Heri ya mwaka mpya, Buon anno, あけましておめでとう, Frohes Neues Jahr.

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Harry ButlerHarry Butler CBE OA, a former Australian of the Year, and one the country’s foremost naturalists and conservationists, died earlier this week. If you do not have memories of him, you might care to look at this YouTube video clip from In the Wild, his enormously popular TV series from the 1970s.

Although very short, the clip displays much of the essence of the man, especially his love of and respect for nature, the extraordinary depth of his knowledge about the natural world and his great effectiveness as a communicator.

Behind his bushman’s earthiness, there was a very sharp scientific mind and an ability to engage with all sorts of people including politicians, media personalities and captains of industry. Disrupted formal schooling did not stop him becoming a renowned teacher of natural science in colleges and universities.

 

Although passionate about the wellbeing of the natural world, he regarded himself as a builder of bridges between conservation and development. One of his proudest achievements was ensuring the protection of Barrow Island, a nature reserve that is home to hundreds of rare plant and animal species, during its development as an oil field. He quarantined the island against introduced plants and animals, banned guns and introduced other measures to protect wildlife and preserve habitat. The practice he developed of using cleared vegetation as both a cover for oil pipelines and a restored habitat for animals is now used around the world.Barrow Island c

His insistence that, under most circumstances, conservation and development could proceed together was not welcomed in some quarters. Some conservationists said that Harry had sold out on his values. But the “either-or, but not both” way of thinking about conservation and development ignores the reality that humanity’s successful and sustainable co-existence with nature has to balance our pro-nature sentiments, actions and values – love, attraction, intellectual understanding, religious celebration and symbolic expression – with the need to exploit nature to some degree and exert some power over it.

Harry achieved that balance in his own life and modelled it for others. I am sure his TV series helped many discover, re-kindle or deepen their connection with nature. As Australia’s home-grown David Attenborough, he truly brought nature into our lounge rooms, attracting regularly a 20% share of the TV viewing audience.

We need many more in the mould of Harry Butler and David Attenborough – people, who through books, film and electronic images, can infect others with their enthusiasm for nature.

The power of media to connect our hearts and minds with the natural world should not be underestimated. Countless studies have shown that representations of nature in photos and paintings and on film and videos can elicit affection, attraction, interest and indeed all of our biophilic responses. Environmental biologist, Orion McCarthy, whose blog, Conserve, I heartily commend, traces his emotional and intellectual passion for nature not from his direct experience of it as a child but from

…the nature documentaries, the trips to the zoo, and the amazing pictures in National Geographic that taught me the importance of nature, the challenges facing the natural world, and why so many species deserve saving.

 With buying Christmas gifts currently on the agenda for many of us, why not consider nature books and thewaterholeDVDs? They could just turn out to be gifts that truly “give on giving”. For suggestions, just Google “Nature DVDs”, “Nature DVDs for toddlers”, “Nature Picture Books”.

Have a happy Christmas.

 

Australian christmas

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Whale slaughterThe news this week that Japan intends resuming “research” whaling in the Antarctic spotlights the concern I raised in my last post. Bluntly stated, the concern is that conversations about climate change and other pressing environmental issues are driven more by political, economic and national self-interest and much less by a valuing of the natural world based on an altruistic love and respect for it. Humanity’s approach to the well-being of nature is largely pragmatic rather than ethical.

As I said, this is a blunt statement of my concern and, as such, does not completely reflect the way things are. Fortunately, the picture is not as black and white as I appear to be painting it.

Looked at in isolation, Japan’s behaviour could be seen as validating my viewpoint. Here is a country, already responsible for killing 3600 minke whales since 2005, setting out to slaughter a further 330, ostensibly for “research” purposes. Japan makes no secret of the fact that the meat from the kills will be Whale meatprocessed into food. Quite apart from violating a ruling of the International Court of Justice, Japan accuses opponents of its action of being emotional about whales and deniers of “scientific” evidence that supports its position.

But beyond Japan (and indeed to some extent within it), there is outrage about what is about to happen. As Australia’s Minister for Conservation, Greg Hunt said, “We do not accept in any way, shape or form the concept of killing whales for so-called ‘scientific research’.” Writing in The Japan Times, Tokyo-based historian Jeff Kingston said Japan’s resumption of whaling flouts the rule of law and would have negative repercussions outweighing any potential upsides for the country’s whaling industry. “Whaling advocates in the Japanese government may think they are justified on cultural and culinary grounds, but they are harpooning ‘Brand Japan’,” he wrote.

The extraordinary thing is that criticisms like these would never have been levelled a matter of a few decades ago. Until the 1930s Australia, along with most other maritime nations, saw whales as an economic resource to be exploited with relative impunity. Between 1822 and 1930, for example, 26,000 southern right whales had been taken in Australian and New Zealand waters. Even as recently as the second half of the 20th century, Australia was still killing sperm whales in their thousands. Not only were whales viewed as a commercial commodity, their harvesting was viewed with pride, a demonstration that humans could dominate some of the world’s largest creatures in the inhospitable environment of the open ocean. The whale was largely perceived as a distant, alien creature, even a malevolent one.

But by the 1980s, attitudes towards the whale were undergoing a profound transformation – described by Stephen Kellert in this way:

Once dominant values based on exploitation, dominion and aversion towards whales had been moderated through much of the developed world. Replacing these sentiments were far more appreciative and sympathetic values, including affection, attraction, intellectual interest, and even the spiritual celebration of the animal. This shift in consciousness toward whales became so pronounced that the animal emerged as an iconic symbol of contemporary conservation, prompting the president of the National Geographic Society in 1976, Gilbert Grosvenor, to remark: “The whale has become a symbol from a new way of thinking about the planet”. Whale a

Notice the words (in bold) Kellert uses to describe the transformation in attitudes towards whales. Each refers to a way we humans have evolved to survive and thrive in nature. Each is a way we “attach meaning to and derive benefit from the natural world” – and hence attach values to it.

With Kellert’s detailed picture of how we relate to nature, we are in a much better position to describe that relationship and to appreciate how it can differ from one person to another and how it can change.

The concepts making up Kellert’s picture are:

  • affection – seeking both the “companionship” and well-being of natureIsobel and elephant
  • attraction – appreciating natural beauty
  • knowing – observing, understanding and thinking about the natural world
  • aversion – antipathy towards and sometimes fearing nature
  • exploitation – utilizing the resources of the natural world
  • domination – mastering and controlling the natural environment
  • spirituality – finding meaning and purpose in experiences that take us beyond ourselves
  • symbolism – representing nature in art, language and music

Take a moment before reading on to think about your own experience of nature in terms of each of these concepts – the form and depth of your love of nature, for example, the strength of your attraction to natural beauty, the mental stimulation you get from nature and so on.

Expect to find that you can use all of the concepts to describe your relationship with nature. Even if you are the most ardent nature lover and admirer of natural beauty, you will also be involved in exploiting and dominating nature in some way – indirectly if not directly.

For Kennert, the concepts represent values as much as they do actions. Affection for nature goes hand-in-hand with recreational, aesthetic, psychological and conservation values, for example, just as exploitation is underpinned by an assertive valuing of the economic and material resources of the natural world.

Within Japanese society and culture, exploitation and domination (along perhaps with knowing) are the driving values as far as whales are concerned. Elsewhere, the relationship with whales is shaped much more by values associated with affection and attraction. This is not to say that the Japanese people have no affection for or attraction to whales or that they are insensitive to the suffering of the creatures. But these pro-whale values are not strong enough currently to outweigh the values associated with exploitation and domination. In contrast to the position in, say, Australia, the value balance in Japan is against the interest of whales (or the minke species at least).

Changing the balance is the only way to create a new situation that is good for whales AND the Japanese people. It was such a change that brought Australia and other nations to their current pro-whale position.

Is such a transformative change possible in relation to other species and indeed the natural environment more generally? The whale is, after all, a very charismatic species.

No one really knows the answer, but we do know that many, many factors influence people’s environmental attitudes and actions. We also know that the task of changing environmental values and ethics is challenging and takes a long time.

Kennert understands this but insists that we have no other option. Without a basic reorientation of our values and ethics towards nature, human will never flourish or be fulfilled, he argues. Environmental altruism has to replace environmental abuse across the planet.

Robert Manne agrees. His recent excellent forensic analysis (The Monthly 2015 summer edition) of why the world has failed to address climate change provides a comprehensive review of all the past manoeuvring and machinations and a compelling reflection on what needs to be done, politically, economically and otherwise. But he concludes:

Yet, as many people now realise, something much more profound than all this [the necessary actions] is required: a re-imagining of the relations between humans and the Earth, a re-imagining that will be centred on a recognition of the dreadful and perhaps now irreversible damage that has been wrought to our common home by the hubristic idea at the very centre of the modern world – man’s assertion of his mastery over nature.

Such a recognition signals a coming moral shift no less deep than those that have already transformed humankind with regard to the ancient inequalities of race and gender.

But there are grounds for optimism. Other examples apart from that of the whales show that transformations in our basic values towards aspects of the natural environment can occur quite quickly and exert lasting effects beyond those achieved by mandate or law. Kellert himself points to the radical changes that are occurring in attitudes towards wetlands, once pejoratively known as swamps. Commonly in the past they were known as places to fear, avoid and wherever possible drain and convert to more useful purposes. Now in many countries, the immense ecological value of wetlands is being recognised and action to conserve them is growing.

In the face of seemingly apocalyptic environmental challenges, it is easy to despair for the future of humanity’s relationship with nature. But we must remain hopeful and positive. Relating to nature in our everyday lives with affection, attraction, intellectual interest and spiritual celebration is key to doing this. So too is finding encouragement in environmental success stories – of the kind Orion McCarthy describes in his timely and inspiring blog, Conserve (the link is in the Blogroll).

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