Eco-Fiesta 2017

This year’s Eco-Fiesta, a few days ago, was much like those of previous years: a lovely day in the park with all sorts of loosely ‘greenie’ and ‘alternative’ people and organisations.  I wrote enough about the 2014 and 2013 events that I shouldn’t need to present an overview this time, so I will dive straight in to the things which caught my attention.

Wildlife Queensland had a well-staffed stall featuring a great gallery of flying fox photos. These animals get a bad press and need all the support they can get.

North Queensland Regional Plan had a very boring stall (I’m sorry, but it’s true!) which tried to engage visitors in planning for our region, the local government areas of Charters Towers, Burdekin Shire, Hinchinbrook Shire and Townsville. It’s a state government initiative and welcomes online input here. I told them about our declining rainfall. What’s your concern?

The Beekeepers  Continue reading “Eco-Fiesta 2017”

The invasion of the butterflies

Tawny Coster, Acraea terpsicore,
Tawny Coster (female) on Cape Pallarenda

The Tawny Coster, an Asian species, was first noticed in northern Australia five years ago and has been spreading southwards ever since. It has reached Townsville in the last few weeks.

I was alerted to the alien invasion by a friend in Bushland Beach who saw them a fortnight ago and asked me if I had seen any  Continue reading “The invasion of the butterflies”

Grey water – keeping gardens alive during water restrictions

Townsville is on Level 3 water restrictions as I write and is quite likely to be on Level 4  within a few months. If so, it’s very likely to stay on level 4 until we get our next Wet season.

Level 3 (sprinklers not to be used, handheld watering 6-7am and 6-7pm only, odds and evens applies to handheld watering) is tough enough on gardens – and gardeners – and Level 4 (no sprinklers or handheld watering allowed, watering cans/buckets only, odds and evens applies to watering cans/buckets) will be far worse. In these conditions, using grey water is one of the most significant options Continue reading “Grey water – keeping gardens alive during water restrictions”

Ursula Le Guin: Always Coming Home

always-coming-home-2016Ursula Le Guin

Always Coming Home

1985, republished by SF Masterworks in 2016

Always Coming Home is a wonderful book but it challenges easy categorisation. Like most of Le Guin’s work, it belongs somewhere in the ‘science fiction and fantasy’ area, but there’s very little science in it and even less fantasy. It is not even a novel, nor a collection of short stories, but an anthology including short stories, poems, play-scripts, an excerpt from a novel, myths and (the longest item) an autobiography.

Between them, they give us a richly textured introduction to an exotic culture – much as an anthology of Kazakh folk tales and literature might do. But which culture?

Continue reading “Ursula Le Guin: Always Coming Home”

Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist

selfish-cap-300Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist – origins of Affluenza

Vermilion, March 2008

In this sequel to his Affluenza (2007), Oliver James argues that capitalism as practised recently in the richer English-speaking countries – that includes Australia – is making us miserable. His ‘affluenza’, a portmanteau word fusing ‘affluence’ and influenza’, is the pattern of chronic over-work, debt, anxiety and waste induced by our obsession with goods and income, and James traces its cause to economic policies.

He defines Selfish Capitalism as the neoliberal Thatcherism adopted in the 1990s and finds that, despite the ‘trickle-down’ rhetoric, those policies made the rich very much richer while leaving the rest of us no better off financially and significantly worse off in other ways. Labour market deregulation undermined job security and held down real wages, the media joined business in successfully promoting perceptions of relative poverty even as real levels of consumption reached new highs, and debt increased enormously. (In Australia, mortgages rose from 2.8 to 4.2 times average annual income between 1994 and 2004 while other personal debt tripled).

If Selfish Capitalism is so bad, what is Unselfish Capitalism? Continue reading “Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist”

The New Nature Writing

new nature writingThe New Nature Writing
Granta No 102, Summer 2008

Granta Books, $29.95

Granta, for those who don’t know it, is an English quarterly which publishes such luminaries as Lessing, Theroux, McEwan and Winterson. The editor of this issue, Jason Cowley, takes as his theme the notion that ‘economic migration, overpopulation and climate change are transforming the natural world into something unfamiliar,’ changing the way we interpret nature.

Cowley’s definition of ‘nature writing’ is broad enough to include squatters in the Bronx, children growing up in a 1960s Liverpool housing estate, and the demolition of the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. The last of these is a photo essay, and complements a group of superb photographs of farmers in the fen country of Norfolk. One of the best of the oddities is Kathleen Jamie’s exploration, via pathology lab and microscope, of the natural world inside our bodies – bacteria grazing on the stomach lining, ‘like musk oxen on tundra,’ and more troubling sights.

More conventionally, Jonathan Raban and Benjamin Kunkel explore the interplay between man and nature in middle America, and Edward Platt elucidates the interplay between military aircraft and migratory birds in Israel. Seamus Heaney (and it’s a sign of the collection’s quality that a Nobel laureate comes so far down the list) and Richard Mabey contribute smaller, quirkier pieces of British natural history. The common factor is sharp observation rendered in crisp, stylish prose.

At 260 pages, The New Nature Writing is a very solid anthology both physically and figuratively. It does not set out to be life-changing but will bring readers a lot of quiet pleasure.

• Reviewed at publication time for the Townsville Bulletin and republished here because it still comes up in my conversations about books and the environment. 

Revisiting Huxley’s Island

‘U-topia’ is literally ‘no-place’ and Sir Thomas More, who wrote the original Utopia in 1516, was well aware that his ideal society was a dream. Dreams have value, however and More’s has been followed by many other visions of ideal political or social perfection. Somewhere along the way, the negative ‘U’ or ‘Ou’ blurred into the ‘Eu’ of ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’, and attracted an opposite, ‘Dystopia’, a ‘bad place’.

Aldous Huxley created one of the most famous of these, of course, with Brave New World (1932). From that low point, he turned in search of better ways of living, joining the pacifist movement, taking up Vedanta, befriending Krishnamurti and investigating psychedelics (The Doors of Perception, 1954).

island-cover-740His last novel, Island (1962), presents an ideal society based on his discoveries during the thirty years since Brave New World. I read it when I was in my late teens or early twenties and have carried mixed memories of it ever since: that I liked his ideal society but didn’t find his book so appealing. When I spotted a new edition in my local library, I picked it up to see how it, and I, might have changed.

Pala, Huxley’s paradise, is a small tropical island in the Indian Ocean. The local religious beliefs are a happy mix of Hinduism and Buddhism, and in that regard, as in many others, Pala resembles Bali. As the book begins, Pala’s nearest neighbour, Rendang, is ruled by a corrupt, expansionist dictator, Colonel Dipa.

Pala escaped colonisation by European powers and the crucial element in its development is that in the early nineteenth century its hereditary ruler, the Old Rajah, collaborated with a Scottish doctor, McPhail, in setting Pala on a new course. McPhail’s European science, intelligently applied, improved health and education, while the rajah’s spiritual wisdom maintained and extended the islanders’ social wellbeing.

Almost everyone on the island is happy with the results. Unfortunately the young rajah-to-be has been educated overseas by his repellently foolish mother, rejects what he doesn’t understand, and is enamoured of Colonel Dipa’s ‘modernisation’ plans.

The novel’s narrative is slight: Will Farnaby, an English journalist, is washed up on Pala and is shown around by Dr Robert McPhail, grandson of the original doctor, and his recently widowed daughter-in-law Susila. Farnaby, much to his surprise and somewhat against his inclination, is convinced of the merits of Palanese way within a few days – but then Colonel Dipa invades at the young rajah’s invitiation, and the book ends with Farnaby and Susila listening to loudspeakers proclaiming the glory of a Greater Rendang.

Nearly all of the rest, and it’s not a short book, is Will’s introduction to Pala’s history and culture. It is very heavily didactic and is, I’m sure, why I remembered the island more fondly than the novel. Wikipedia defines Huxley as a ‘writer, novelist, philosopher’ and ‘one of the pre-eminent intellectuals of his time’, and putting his novels second doesn’t seem unfair. Most of his mature work was in short nonfiction and (perhaps unexpectedly) in screenwriting – which leads me to a thought that Island might be even better as a movie than as a novel, since Huxley gives us a small cast of well defined characters and the ‘what’ of the island could be simply shown while the ‘why’ is explained in his expertly-written dialogue.

Be that as it may, Huxley’s utopia impresses me even more now than it did years ago.

The recipe? Take one relaxed pre-industrial society; add science, education, and health care; prioritise social development, especially self-knowledge, over technological development; and keep the modern world at a distance, adopting only what leads to greater happiness.

The core of Huxley’s educational curriculum is a self-knowledge based on Buddhist and Hindu principles. It is systematically taught in primary schools and augmented by a mescalin-like drug which gives all adults direct access to a mystical experience of blissful connectedness to the universe. But respect for each other’s wellbeing extends to respect for all life and to maintaining the vitality and harmony of the environment, and the result is something Huxley may not even have had a word for: sustainability. Huxley was aware of limits to growth in terms of population and resources, and made sure his original Dr McPhail knew of Malthus but the additional limits imposed by climate change have only emerged since Island was written.

The green movement has necessarily focussed on harm reduction for the last thirty or forty years but the essential next step is to re-imagine our world as one which has learned to say ‘enough’ to consumption and to live within its means. One of the most attractive things about Huxley’s vision is that it is such a simple, positive and, in principle, achievable model of a such a society.