New eBook – Environmental Issues for Real

Not satisfied with haranguing readers of this blog with environmental woes, I have branched out into the dynamic new world of ebook publishing.

Thanks to the amazing people at Smashwords my latest collection of essays on the environmental issues of the day is now available to download in all the usual formats.

Give it a whirl and maybe leave a review on the site. It would be great to hear what you think.


The recent natural history series Earthflight has been interesting to watch.

It follows birds as they fly around the planet, the sort of thing the BBC have done many times. Only this time the idea is to take the bird’s eye view.

And it is amazing where advances in digital, miniaturization and lens technology can take us. Some of the shots would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

Here is my quick synopsis. Truly staggering photography is spoilt by gratuitous segways (usually to footage of large ferocious animals other than birds) and an inane sales copy narrative. But, hey, not every audience wants to hear Sir David all the time.

The images are so amazing that figuring out how they did it takes the mind away from what the bird sees.

Maybe it is a bit like the experience with flight simulator games. We know we cannot be up in the air because we are holding a game console and so part of us stays attached to that reality. It was similar with images of flight.

My brain said that it was not possible to be 1,000 feet up gliding on thermals across an Andean mountain top and so I did not see the landscape below as the condor might, even though the camera was right there on its back (at least that’s what we are supposed to think is how it was done – I have my doubts).

The footage I remember though was taken in conventional fashion. It was of 40 or so Andean condors chattering around a carcass at the end of a landfill site on the outskirts of Santiago. The narrator tells us that the carcass is provided for the birds so that they are not at risk from the bulldozers that are spreading out the garbage.

It was not so long ago that the Andean condor was classified as an endangered species by the IUCN. It is better off today with a near threatened classification,  but remains susceptible to human influence.

Only here were 40 individuals on a rubbish tip. And this is a good thing?

I’ll leave you to decide.



Wot, no politics

It was a momentous day in 1990 when the Australian government decided to permit the broadcast of proceedings in the Australian parliament on free-to-air television.

Since then it has been possible for the electorate to see first hand what elected members get up to in their day jobs.

We can all follow the procedure, the tradition, the ceremony, the banter, the heckling, the bad behaviour, the nodding off after lunch, and the politics.

It is the last bit that interests me.

Tune in to question time and you will see the government field questions on where it stands on the issues of the day. The opposition will poke and prod to unearth the truth, the philosophy that underpins the position. This they will then undermine and deride to make their alternative position seem so much more sensible.

In return the government will fire back proclaiming the logic of their stance and how the alternatives will surely fail.

In short, there will be debate.

And debate will help us all understand the options and form our own opinion. Those of us not able or foolish enough to take in question time live will be able to get a potted summary in the weekend editorials or a sound bite on the news, maybe even head to the blogosphere to see what everyone else thinks.

So what happens when, back in the chamber, you are so afraid of your philosophical position you bury it so far back in your mind that after a while you easily forget what it is.

You now have nothing to defend. No philosophical foundation on which to argue the issue; no weapons or ammunition for a verbal fight and no empathy, compassion or understanding if enlightenment is your gig. You have nothing.

And there is no debate.

Tune in to question time today and what you will witness is a slanging match over nothing more than personality and procedure.

It is simply too painful to watch.

Zoological gardens

Earlier I posted a somewhat acerbic commentary on gardens.

In brief it concluded that we must have them even though we don’t really use them. I am curious to know if the same thought process could be applied to zoological gardens.

Zoos began as collections, or more strictly, menageries.

Some of the wealthy and idle rich, who often liked to collect things, developed a fascination for animals and started to collect them. The more weird, more wonderful, and wilder the better.

It is not hard to imagine the independently wealthy of the early industrial era with access to travel on the new steam ships and trains wandering off to see the wondrous wildlife of Africa, all hurrahs, what ho’s, and gin and tonics. Once they were done with shooting the lions, buffalo, elephants, rhino and leopards it was inevitable that they would want some in their copious back yards at home

It probably started with taxidermy they had done on all the trophies. But stuffed didn’t quite cut if you could have a roaring lion the other side of the rose garden.

Plus, if you could have a botanical garden, then why not a zoological garden?

So live animals became the go and menageries an inevitable consequence of wealth and travel.

And for a long while these were private collections, places where the privileged few showed off their latest acquisitions to a handful of their friends and guests. Even today, the majority of the exotic creatures held in captivity are in private collections.

Only later did the fascination spread to the general public and the notion that there might be a buck in showing the weird and wonderful to the masses.

If you have been fortunate enough to witness wildlife in the wild then even the best zoo is an anathema. You know there is something about a cage, enclosure, display (the noun choice cannot really hide the reality) that strips the zoo animal of its essence.

It does not matter that most animals are not aware of their situation as captives or that a well run zoo is no more cruel than keeping a dog or a cat at home.

And that even all the zoos in the world hold a miniscule fraction of the extant specimens of all but the rarest species. The number of captives is a blip. What is a few hundred elephants when there are hundreds of thousands still alive in the wild?

Then there are the well-rehearsed reasons in favour; various expansions on themes of

  • education
  • conservation
  • preservation
  • enjoyment value

And these all have merit.

The concern I have is an impression that we have not stretched these themes far enough.  Especially to the importance of maintaining viable wild populations of the species that we like to exhibit.

Whilst I find a trip to the local zoo to stand and admire a zebra, giraffe and even a tubby lion rewarding, I cannot escape this feeling that something’s missing.


A garden is a place that humans create from nature.

We carve out a parcel of land around our dwelling, add some landscaping and select plants to display nature’s beauty and bounty. This orderliness of things is pleasing to us. We feel in control as though our effort has tamed the wilderness.

The cleared patch puts some space between our homes, allows us to potter around outside without bumping into the dangers that trigger our fight and flight response and even provides fresh lettuce for a salad.

The first gardens were probably about clearing the vegetation around the hut so that we would not step on an unseen snake and the water would drain away more easily.

Most of us have or would like a small garden, our own small patch of tamed tranquility. We also enjoy visits to grander spaces that surround opulent homes for a garden is also a statement. It says something about the owner.

These spaces are so important to us that when we allow half the land area in the suburbs of many of our cities to be gardens. This makes our cities bigger, city infrastructure more expensive, and our commutes longer.

So why is it that with all these good reasons and commitment to have a garden we actually don’t spend that much time in them?

Obviously during the week we are at work and our kids are at school so we cannot be in two places at once. Then there is homework, the newspaper or TV, and dinner to prepare. At weekends we have shopping and sports and, well, a whole bunch of things to do.

There is some gardening of course; only this is mostly to keep the garden looking good.

And then you can’t be in the garden in the rain.

Take away all the effort in upkeep and we hardly spend any time in the garden at all. Only the kids use it and for them it is an attractive space until they get to high school when other things tweak their interest or the space is just too small for real soccer.

There must be another reason for our love affair.

It could be because all we need is to see evidence of our personal control over nature. A garden is a space close to us that we (or perhaps the landscaper) have tamed and bent to our will if you like. It is a safe buffer between the real world and us.

And yes, we like that space to be beautiful. We like to select and display selections from nature that we especially like or on occasion might even want to eat. Most of all we want it to look good simply because looking at it is what we will do most.

Perhaps it is OK that we do this, that we create this visual buffer. Especially if when we get a spare moment and its not raining we wander around the garden or just sit in it, maybe even on the grass. Maybe we are now so removed from nature that it really is too much for us to be exposed directly to its real tooth and claw and that our modifications of nature are a necessary half way house.

My guess is that these days, gardens get looked at only occasionally and entered for their own sake very rarely. When I travel on the train to the city, a journey of 60km each way, I can count on one hand the times I have seen people in their gardens.

So maybe gardens are actually about that neighbour thing.

Perhaps they are there to demonstrate how wealthy we are. It explains why when we look to buy a house, the size and shape of the garden around it is so important to our purchasing decision.

It would be better if we actually spent more time in our gardens, just because we can.