Environment – Optimists challenged

‘On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree,’ wrote US Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin. Indeed, sometimes it feels like the whole world is burning, and to act in the spirit of hope is to plant a whole forest. An everyday review of news headlines reports fires across the globe, record temperatures and drought. Australia is a classic example of an extreme environment made even more extreme by both local land and energy use, and anthropogenic climate change at global level. Unfortunately for Australia, as one of the worst contributors per capita to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions through its reliance on coal-fired power generation, its chickens are coming home to roost.

A huge mass of ice sheet is about to cleave off Antarctica and last year, the Arctic was up to 20 degrees warmer than in the more stable recent past. Even the ocean’s deepest places, the Mariana and Kermadec trenches, are host to the world’s worst chemicals, at a scale equal to the world’s most polluted industrial sites, according to scientists reported in the Guardian. Recent reports calculated that there are about 6000 pieces of rubbish per square kilometre, even in the Arctic. At various locations around the world, sudden tree collapse is killing hundreds of thousands of trees – whole forests. Man-made deforestation, of course, kills a whole lot more. Then there’s the very finite nature of global species and depopulation – extinction – of much of the world’s wild living wonder. Leopards are just one of the recent high profile species added to the long ‘going, going, gone’ list of endangered biodiversity in the current era.

Meanwhile, closer to home, swimming at many of Auckland’s beaches poses a health risk because of our unreformed habit of flushing toilet waste into streams and harbours. South Island lakes and rivers have dried up into algal cesspits devoid of life, and neither ‘wadeable’, or ‘swimmable’, diminished because of our habit of denuding landscapes, using land right up to rivers’ edges, and indirectly flushing agricultural waste into streams and rivers. Even with the best intentions, these water quality issues will take as long to repair as they have taken to create. It will require champions, buy-in and major long-term commitment – in a profit-driven economy where land and water are commodified, but at the same time, go largely unpriced, undervalued and invisible as gifts from the environment.

Today’s problems are systemic and well entrenched. And many of them seem intractable. Once species are lost, they’re gone forever. Environmental contamination takes a long time to reverse, even with the best will in the world. The whole planet seems overpopulated with people, but wealth and health are distributed unevenly. What’s the future for human and non-human animals and ecosystems? Human behaviour has caused a tragic distortion to the biosphere; the Anthropocene, now in a ‘great acceleration’ of change. I’m going outside to plant some trees!