By accident rather than design, I started my reading year with two short but remarkable nature and activism themed reads. The first was Harry Saddler’s reflection on the moral dilemma facing the current generation; in a world facing the horror of mass extinction and climate change; should we be bringing children into this world? Saddler’s Questions Raised by quolls: Fatherhood and conservation in an uncertain world, is part natural history, part memoir of the pandemic, part moral philosophy and colonial history, although quolls and questions about conservation are integral to the book.
Quolls for Harry Saddler are a way to personalise the extinction crisis we are facing in this country, at the risk of repeating myself and starting to sound like a broken record, once again I will say Australia has one of the highest rates of extinction in the world, if not the highest!
“We have caused the extinction of more mammals than any other nation, and today nearly 2,000 plants, animals and ecosystems remain under threat of extinction”. The Australian conservation foundation, check out that report here: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/auscon/pages/17703/attachments/original/1596500683/Extinction_crisis_in_cities_and_towns.pdf?1596500683
Saddler takes the inherently charismatic quoll as a jumping-off point to discuss our own implication in environmental destruction in this country, he uses personal stories and family history to make us think about our engagement with the environment, and our ancestors’ cavalier attitude to wildlife. He has a conversational approach, pondering our understanding of terms like “wilderness” and broader social and cultural implications in how we choose to think about our environment: “… I have to remind myself at the same time what that emptiness means. Hikes in many parts of Australia are often described as hikes in the wilderness, and the term ‘wilderness’ is even incorporated into the place names of many areas of the Australian bush, but on this continent to speak of wilderness – ‘land which is wild, uncultivated and inhabited only by wild animals; a wild uncultivated or uninhabited region’ – is to erase the millennia old and ongoing presence of Indigenous people and their nations and cultures. Ideas can be as invasive, as foxes or cats. It’s comparatively easy to remove the notion of ‘terra nullius’ from legal doctrine; removing it from the mainstream national culture is infinitely harder. (Saddler, 2021 p.43).
Examining the political, social and personal implications of environmental degradation and climate change and our individual responses is what this book is all about, as Saddler states: “In an increasingly complex and divided world, even such a primal question as whether to have a child or not is no longer as simple as it seems.” He challenges the thinking that places the burden of responsibility on the economically and politically disadvantaged.
The book was composed during, and, in part, in response to the challenges of the pandemic. It was also written at a time when we were beginning to see the emergence of proto-fascist movements globally and Saddler wisely counsels against the danger of eco-fascism:
“… Although often well-intentioned, the posts and comments on social media during the pandemic, about wildlife returning to cities, about the sudden cleanness of a world without traffic pollution, betrayed a naive thoughtlessness about the real impacts of the pandemic; not just that the virus directly and indirectly directly destroyed lives, but that those lives – whether uninsured Americans, immunocompromised people or the elderly, or even healthy people who lost income, jobs, homes, support networks through an increasing casualisation of the workforce and governments that fail to provide adequate safety nets – overwhelmingly belong to the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged in society. No good and equitable environmental movement can be built on the back of the entrenched power systems that have led us to this very moment of catastrophe: to celebrate a greener world yet ignore or even embrace or further enforce inequity is to run the risk of indulging in ecofascism.” (Saddler, 2021 p. 96).
One element of the pandemic I had not really considered was the impact on conservation research, Saddler directly consults researchers about that impact, and with ethics committees cancelling all future fieldwork, that impact is considerable. Restoring the environment is about more than, “just hoping for the best”, fieldwork and research are essential. The pandemic also impacted bush fire recovery efforts. Our governmental responses to environmental crises of all kinds, whether they be bushfires, floods or pandemics seem largely flawed and Saddler offers some discussion of that fact. Neo-liberalism and capitalist greed seem to be driving our continued destruction and failure of empathy. The pandemic itself offered an opportunity for the government to rush revised environmental legislation through with minimal consultation and debate, further reducing protections for our environment.
There is a lot, in this discursive little book, it addresses big issues, putting conservation within a broader social and cultural context, it also addresses complex ethical issues in regards to control of feral animals, which I found particularly interesting. Many of us with a love of the natural world, also have a love of the animal world in general which in Australia presents some clear challenges. If you exclude habitat loss, the biggest threat to our wildlife is feral animals, with cats and foxes topping the list. Like Saddler, I have found the voiced hatred of feral animals more than a little unsettling. I also find the failure to realistically address the very real threat to fragile environments also deeply concerning. (I am thinking of the human-created problem of horses in our alpine regions). No real animal lover wants to see any animal suffer but we have created this problem and we must address a solution. Saddler’s discussion of the problem is quite thought provoking:
“Knowing the scale of the loss to date, I would rather cats were killed where necessary so that the Australian landscape can be populated with western quolls and the other species still remaining in their ecological community.’
‘Which is not the same as wishing for the cats, or foxes, to suffer. There’s a tendency in Australia to view invasive, destructive species with hatred; it’s an alarming and unsettling parallel with the tendency to speak of the need to control Australia’s human population, which is often expressed as an environmental need – a question of ‘sustainability’ – with barely concealed xenophobia and a fortress mentality. I wonder sometimes if the almost fanatical hatred that many Australian people profess for invasive animals – cats, foxes, common mynas, feral pigeons, etc. is a way of releasing in a socially acceptable way a xenophobia that might otherwise draw some measure of criticism, or force some measure of self examination.” (p.125)
Not sure I can agree with the above sentiment but I do think the vocal hatred of ferals is indicative of a society that sometimes lacks the ability to empathise. Interestingly Saddler discusses the importance of empathy and inclusive acceptance of diversity, the need to move away from individualism and towards community. He suggests that it is at the community level, that we will see the change that may yet save the environment and ourselves. The importance of community in bringing about change and sustainability is I think crucial and spot on. We certainly won’t reverse the damage we have wrought by pursuing the same individualist ethic that has bought us and so many species, like quolls, to the deadly precipice we are currently facing.
Questions raided by quolls may be a fairly brief book, just under 200 pages, but it is packed with stimulating thinking and proved to be an eminently satisfying read. The book was also essentially positive in its conclusions. We are facing considerable challenges in terms of the environment but I am hopeful that as a community we can yet slow the decline and books like this one provide empowering knowledge and inspiration.
Sadly I have only ever seen a quoll in captivity, perhaps one day I will have the privilege of encountering this feisty little Aussie in the wild, at least I hope so. Sharon at Rockin’ It Whimsy – Motherhood | Mental Health | Saving the World suggested we post a favourite quote or fact from our nature reads. Actually finding that hard with this one, I guess the fact that I find most curious, is the fact that conservationists have had success in teaching quolls to avoid eating toxic cane toads, and that the knowledge not to eat cane toads is passed down generations, that knowelge may become geneticly imprinted as a parent generation does not necessarily have the time to teach their young that the toads are poisonous. Saddler recounts some interesting research on this in Questions raised by quolls.
This is my first read for the Gaia/nature reading challenge, in fact, I had intended on posting on a couple of other reads as well, but I will leave them for another post. Check out Brizzy Mays post on Books and Bruschetta she reviews the wonderful Australian picture book Dry To Dry : The Seasons Of Kakadu for the Gaia challenge and don’t forget to leave a link in the comments to any post or review you do relating to the Gaia challenge. Happy reading!