Bundeena, NSW photo by Ace Bourke

LEADERSHIP: We are being failed by our leaders – or perhaps we get the leaders we deserve? We are entitled to criticise them as they have pushed themselves forward. Obama has put his own re-election prospects above the Palestinian people and he has lost me. Blair tries to be all things to all men – from invading Iraq, to being on JP Morgan’s payroll, to friendship with Gaddafi, to being the Middle East Envoy. One could argue that this makes him ideally suited to play his role – or should disqualify him. I think he has lost all credibility.

In Australia our entire political discourse seems aimed at shock jock audiences in marginal seats. Our government is examining every possible angle to send our relatively few asylum seekers (including children) back to anywhere rather than fulfilling our international obligations. I am losing a little faith in democracy – or compulsory voting at least – and for global problems like global warming, I wish for a more powerful and corruption-free UN type organisation.

GFC (II): We seem to be on the brink of a world recession or have never really recovered from the GFC of 2008. Again there is an outrageous failure of leadership politically, economically and financially. Everyone is caught by surprise again, and there seems to be no coherent response. It was not reassuring for trader Alession Rastani to say bankers at Goldman Sachs “rule the world”, and that he dreams of another recession as “our job is to make money from it.” The necessary structural reform for a new global era just hasn’t happened. Short term jolts to the economies are not sufficient (although the stimulus measures in Australia were successful), nor are slashing government spending and taxes. Austerity measures and consumer pessimism are inhibiting the spending necessary to prevent going deeper into recession. Not that I understand these matters – but alarmingly neither do the so-called experts!

OCCUPY WALL STREET:  I’ve been blogging about 1% of the population owning so much wealth, and it seems that finally enough is enough. The Left has finally emerged revitalised and galvanised into action. The growing disparity between the rich and poor is the greatest challenge of our time. The Occupy Wall Street and The Other 99% movement is spreading quickly as the cause is so just – a concern for ordinary people. Count me in.

Bundeena, NSW September 2011 photo by Ace Bourke

Bundeena, NSW September 2011 photo by Ace Bourke

ISRAEL & PALESTINE: This must be one of the major unresolved international relations issues of our time and after 20 years looks no closer to resolution. With the Israelis insisting on the Palestinians formally acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state and Palestinians insisting on a freeze in settlement growth, the situation has been described as “utter hopelessness” after the performances by their respective leaders at the UN.  It does seem provocative at the moment for Netanyahu to be determined to push ahead with the construction of one thousand new houses to be built in a large settlement in East Jerusalem. With the “Arab Spring” and the loss of Turkey and Egypt as allies, Israel is facing a new and shifting scenario, and you’d think a new and more conciliatory approach is urgently required. This is the dilemma that Obama is trying to juggle – very unsuccessfully.

Let’s hope for a new paradigm, a new generation of courageous and imaginative leaders, and more economic cooperation and partnerships. I did read that young secular Israelis are more concerned with the high cost of living than “security” and are wondering how Israel will support itself with the attitude among some Orthodox Jews that not paying taxes is acceptable. Apparently they have on average 8 children and will be the majority in thirty years.

DAVID SUZUKI: I recently read The Legacy which is a summation of Suzuki’s experience and knowledge and vision for the future. My immediate thoughts were why aren’t wise Elders like him utilised by our governments to solve some of our urgent problems?

He succinctly summarises our natural and human origins and what we and the biosphere consist of in a way that a layman like myself can understand.

In 1992 1,700 senior scientists signed the World’s Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources… No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.” So in 2011 one wonders if the tipping point in relation to the atmosphere, water resources, oceans, soil, forests, species and population may have been reached.

Issues and subjects he discusses which particularly interested me include: we face a doubling of population, and uncontrolled growth is suicidal; economic growth versus the environment and how a price can actually be put on nature’s services; how consumerism was actively encouraged and why it should now be discouraged; 99% of our genes are identical to the genes of the great apes; we have an innate need to be with other species and that all of life is our “kin.”

Despite the damage and depletion of resources he has observed throughout his life, he is however quite optimistic and discusses various ways forward. He discusses all the unforeseen technological benefits that actually flowed from the USSR and US “space race” and what could be achieved by the concerted action of “joining together in a common goal and a commitment to confront our enormous ecological challenges.” But change “begins with each of us.”

Suzuki discusses how indigenous people understand how we are the environment and that their very survival has depended on their ecological awareness and adjustment.

I have worked for many years as a curator with Aboriginal artists, but over the last few years because of the Christian the Lion phenomenon I was suddenly given the chance to talk about animal welfare, conservation and environmental issues. But my two major concerns are linked because it is of course indigenous people that can show us how to care for and tread lightly on the environment we entirely rely on.

Bundeena photo by Ace Bourke

Bundeena photo by Ace Bourke

WADE DAVIS: While Suzuki is concerned with the biosphere, fellow Canadian and ethno botanist Wade Davis is concerned with the “ethnosphere” – which is described as “the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations and intuitions brought into being by the human imagination.” He is National Geographic’s Explorer in Residence.

Friends had told me about him over the last year or two, and I read some of his articles. Recently I finally had the chance to attend a talk by him on Human Migration at the Australian Museum. He was very knowledgeable, sophisticated and articulate – nearly too good to be true! He reminded me of Australia’s own brilliant ubiquitous know-all Tim Flannery. Wade seems to have lived with or visited many obscure indigenous people in the world, tried many mind-altering drugs, and written many books about his experiences, all of course illustrated with his own excellent photographs.

What really sticks in my mind? Previously he had written extremely well about our own Australian Aboriginals and in this Oration he did say they were the first wave out of Africa. A sample of an Aborigine’s hair collected a century ago demonstrates that they left Africa 62,000 – 75,000 years ago and were the first of multiple waves of migration that travelled through Asia and interbred with recently identified archaic humans called Denisovans.

Davis is primarily concerned with all the knowledge that we are losing as languages disappear. He commented on the extraordinary Polynesian navigational skills as an example of ingenuity that could sometime be at risk. He also talked about what is catastrophically lost with deforestation. His studies include the so-called zombie drugs in Haiti, and his extensive travels include Tibet, Peru and the Amazon. I haven’t really done him justice as he talked very quickly and bombarded us with interesting information which I struggled to digest while also watching a quick succession of marvellous photographs.

Importantly, he too is optimistic about the future. He remarked on our capacity to change our attitudes. One example he gave was the attitude to gay people over the last 20 years, and the present debate about gay marriage which previously would have been unimaginable.

Wade Davis was giving the Thomas Foundation Conservation Oration, in association with The Nature Conservancy (TNC). TNC has been working in Australia since 1999 and is already helping to protect more than 6 million hectares and supporting conservation across more than 30 million hectares of largely Indigenous lands. TNC takes a collaborative non-confrontational approach to conservation that is based on sound science and their efforts are very much worth supporting www.nature.org/australia. There are conservancies all over the world, and I have previously referred to several in Africa. I think they are an excellent concept: preserving large continuous tracts of land and natural and traditional animal migration corridors, rather than piecemeal areas.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Leonardo is in Sydney filming The Great Gatsby. He has demonstrated a deep commitment to environmental concerns. He has financed films such as The 11th Hour about the convergence of environmental crises and the need for leadership which he produced and narrated. He has donated $1 million to the WWF to help save the tiger from extinction. When he recently tweeted about the campaign concerning tigers in captivity in America, my agent immediately sent him a copy of A Lion Called Christian, and we hope to draw his attention to the plight of Tony the Tiger which he is most probably already aware of.

TONY THE TIGER:  I emailed the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) for an update and they replied. “The court has scheduled two new hearings in the Tony the Tiger case. On October 17th, the court will hear the States’ exceptions, which challenge the plaintiffs’ standing to bring the case. On November 2nd, the court will hear ALDF’s motion for a permanent injunction to revoke the permit that lets Michael Sandlin confine Tony at the Tiger Truck Stop.”

Bundeena, NSW September 2011 photo by Ace Bourke

MISC STATS: 2,600 Syrians killed so far in their protests; 60,000 anti nuclear protesters take to the streets in Japan; Rupert Murdoch owns 70% of the metropolitan newspapers in Australia and the family own 40% of the voting stock in News Corp; 71% of the earth is covered by ocean; according to author and birdwatcher Jonathan Franzen 9 million birds are killed by cats in the US each year.

AASG: The Australian Animal Studies Group (AASG) has emailed their latest bulletin. It contains a lot of information, especially reviews of very interesting books. There is also news of upcoming events and conferences, and new courses such as Humans, Animals and Society at Flinders University South Australia. There is a report on the recent Global Animal Conference which was about the implications of globalisation for animals, and I was on a panel in one session.

MINDING ANIMALS INTERNATIONAL: I have also just received their Bulletin No.7 There are fascinating conferences all over the world including: Barcelona 24-25 October, Oslo, Prague, New York, Uppsala in Sweden, Rennes in France, Geneva, Vancouver, Berlin and Buddhism and the New World Order: Compassion, Animal Welfare and Conservation in New Delhi in November 2011.

Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

FOOD: I attended a talk entitled What We Are and What We Eat by Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals. He discussed how it is often difficult even having conversations about vegetarianism. In the US 99% of meat and chicken is factory farmed. Factory farming is the single worst thing for the environment, and for animals. He framed the discussion and his arguments amusingly and well. Rather than recommending people become vegetarian (although he wants us to), he suggests we all eat more vegetarian meals. I think he wants us to become vegetarians by stealth.

With television programs such as MasterChef and various food festivals, people must be getting better educated about food and better diets, and alternatives to meat. A gathering of chefs, scientists and the now obligatory wild food foragers, met recently in Copenhagen to find solutions to the planet’s food problems (Mad ideas to save the world, SMH Good Living Tuesday 27 September). With the population rising from nearly 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, food production needs to increase by 70%. “Vegetables will come from rooftop gardens and community plots; fish will feed off plankton in our kitchen tanks; ants, worms and grasshoppers will flavor breads; urban beehives will supply our honey; soil will be an ingredient(!); and meat will be a rare treat.”

I also recently watched a program on genetically modified food. It was a reminder of how our food has been tampered with over many years.  I’m not sure however, I want to eat food which contains antibiotics and insecticides, especially as there seem to be no long-term tests yet of the effects of their toxicity.

Bundeena, NSW July 2011 photo by Ace Bourke

Bundeena, NSW July 2011 photo by Ace Bourke

PETS: 63% of Australian households have pets and it is one of the few sectors of our economy which is actually growing. I hate pet accessories let alone costumes, but love it that we are lavishing attention on our pets and hopefully feeding them nutritious foods.

PROJECT NIM: This sounds a terrifying if fascinating documentary about Nim, a chimpanzee brought up as a human to see if primates can be taught to construct sentences with sign language. He was born in 1973 the year Christian was last seen. I think we learned more from Christian than vice versa, and he certainly wasn’t an ‘experiment’. While he may not have lived as long, Christian’s life was much happier. We only had a short time with Christian and it was primarily a success because he was young. Lions are family/pride animals and Christian was so good natured, and as a cub was open to a degree of domestication and socialisation – up to a point!

JOHNNY DARLING: One of Australia’s leading documentary makers (the classic Lempad of Bali and extremely lyrical Below the Wind etc) is seriously ill, and many of us love him dearly and have treasured his intelligence, wisdom, humour, encouragement, creativity and friendship over the years.

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