Chimp with Camera

CARBON PRICE: Congratulations to Australia for the July Ist implementation of the Carbon and Mineral taxes.  Both issues have cost the careers and credibility of several political leaders in Australia already, and (unfairly) damaged the reputation of the PM. The Opposition, temporarily silenced by our extraordinary annual growth rate of 4.3%, has been campaigning against it and frightening people for years now.  It is actually a carbon price, not a tax, and will transition to an Emissions Trading Scheme in 3 years.  It only applies to our top 300 emitters, and has inbuilt and quite generous compensations. The Opposition have promised to rescind both taxes if elected to office next year (which unfortunately seems likely), but hopefully this will be very difficult. They have an alternative “Direct Action” policy on carbon which no-one seems to take seriously.  It is admittedly a very complex subject to fully understand and is an example of an issue that requires real leadership and education.  It should have bi-partisan support as in the UK and New Zealand.  Even if one does not believe in climate change, who can deny that our water and air are unacceptably polluted and that we have to look for alternatives to our 95% dependence on fossil fuels.

Apparently 85% of the businesses likely to be most effected by the new carbon tax have already acted to decrease their emissions, so it is already having an effect, and they accept that the carbon tax is here to stay. Unfortunately the Opposition’s threat to unwind the tax is creating investment uncertainty. The carbon price is $23 per tonne – which is in the middle compared to a lower price in Europe, and higher in Sweden, Norway and Switzerland. A reasonably high price is needed to encourage the transition from coal to renewables.

The Opposition (and miners) have said that these taxes will force businesses to invest elsewhere. The Shell company however, still thinks Australia is a “good place to invest” and will spend $30 billion dollars here over the next five years. The company advocates a price for carbon based on market mechanism, and have costed in a price of $40 per tonne.

Electricity prices have risen 55% in my State over the last 3 years, apparently because of the cost of  building “lines and poles” that I understand the government reimburses the energy companies for.  The network seems very expensively structured just to be able to handle the few and obvious peak consumer demands. While the new tax and the government will be blamed for our already high electricity prices which are anticipated to rise 9%, the most vulnerable people in the community will be compensated. Already households are becoming much more energy conscious, and the demand is already lower.

Energy accounts for 70% of greenhouse gases and a great deal more money needs to be spent on research into alternatives and renewable energies – while “carbon capture” at this stage remains a remote dream. Australia is exporting $44 billion dollars worth of coal this year!

Pup and tail

JAMES LOVELOCK: Interestingly, James Lovelock, the 92 year old scientist, futurist, and inventor of the Gaia hypothesis (that the Earth is a self-regulating, single organism), has surprised environmentalists by his long support for the use of nuclear energy and hatred of wind power.  He has now come out in favour of fracking for extracting natural gas as it produces much less CO2 than burning coal.  He thinks most renewable energy schemes are hopelessly “inefficient and unpleasant”, and that sustainable development is “meaningless drivel”. He envisages a future where we live in megacities. He gives Singapore (one of my least favourite cities) as an example of a very successful city which was built in a humid and inhospitable climate on a swamp. “It’s so much cheaper to air-condition the cities and let Gaia take care of the world”.

It is hard to support nuclear energy in the shadow of Fukushima.  Apparently the supports for the pool containing the spent fuel rods in Nuclear Reactor 4 are very badly damaged, and is a catastrophe just waiting to happen. Radiation levels in fish have been picked up as far away as the US coast, destroying marine life – and livelihoods, for decades to come.  TEPCO have deceived the Japanese public from the start and are to be sued for many billions of dollars in compensation.  I feel hypocritical  however as Australia supplies 16% of the world’s uranium.

elephant and boy

RIO+20: One wonders if summits or events like this and the failure rate, only build public cynicism.  Only 4 of 70 “targets” from the last Rio Summit 20 years ago were met.  Meetings on the sidelines were probably more useful and people are recommending abandoning attempts to get governments to agree, and to take different approaches such as persuading financial institutions to change how they invest money, like the UN- backed Principles for Responsible Investment.

MARINE PARKS: Australia has proposed a giant network of marine parks –the world’s largest marine protection area, which still leaves 2/3rds of our oceans for fishing, recreation etc. Oceans are the life-support system of the planet. Naturally this proposal is contentious and illuminates a philosophical difference between the political Left and Right (a divide that seems to be widening rapidly). The conservatives seem to see the environment as a resource for them to utilise, consume and yes, enjoy, while the Left lean more towards treading lightly on the earth, and derive pleasure in long-term conservation and protection.

SHOOTERS: The newish conservative NSW State government has done a shady deal with the Shooters and Fishers Party to allow shooting in 79 National Parks and reserves. This is supposedly an important “conservation” initiative against feral animals, although experts say this is ridiculous, indeed counterproductive.  One of the MPs from this party Robert Borsak goes hunting in Zimbabwe to proudly shoot elephants, also as part of a “conservation” program. His fellow MP Robert Brown, in a debate over this issue in Parliament, said to a Green MP it was a pity he couldn’t take him outside and “beat him to death”.

Cat and man window

THE WORLD: The ongoing Global Financial Crisis seems to deepen and some commentators are saying it is the end- game of an economic and financial model, and the end of an era that began with the free market forces espoused by Thatcher and Reagan.  It seems to be now finally recognised that “growth”,  not just “austerity” has to be a crucial element in any recovery. In the absence so far of any new or innovative approaches to this grave crisis potentially engulfing us all, I did read of a proposal for a Global Rescue “Marshall” Plan (American assistance to Europe after WW2) that everyone would contribute to.  There also now seems to be acceptance that the banks have to evolve as soon as possible towards a single European banking supervision system.

While the US is carrying huge debt, good news is that there is some positive movement in the housing sector, and that the economy is “gaining some momentum”. Congratulations to Mr. Obama for the health-care win in the Supreme Court, and that this result will spread coverage to 30 million Americans presently without insurance.

MIDDLE EAST: It is now called a civil war in SYRIA, and defections from the Syrian army seem to be increasing. Violence is escalating and 16,000 Syrians have died in the last 15 months. Given the Russian and Chinese intransigence there is now talk of Assad leaving the country under immunity, or “political transition”.  Others are questioning the present“veto” option of the 5 Permanent Members of the UN Security Council and think a “majority vote” would be preferable. We should not forget how the UN was just ignored (and weakened) by the US and UK in their enthusiasm to invade Iraq so disastrously. In LIBYA, while the oil is flowing, groups of heavily-armed militias have a sense of entitlement and are taking control from authorities, and there is very little existing social or political infrastructure to build on post-Gaddafi. Congratulations to EGYPT for their first democratically elected President, although no-one seems to know just what powers the Generals will allow him – and no outcry from the Americans over this or the dissolving of the elected parliament. The Israelis are nervous about the threat to revisit the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt, and the Americans will no doubt use  their continued annual funding of $1.5 billion to secretly bargain in their own interests.

Chimp and Lion

ASYLUM SEEKERS: Yet another boat has sunk en route to Australia with at least 92 drowned, with other boats still arriving.  Both the major parties have played politics on this – one determined to cling to office, the other determined to throw them out, and unfortunately both are pandering to Australian racial prejudices and lack of compassion.  Some appalled back-benchers of both parties initiated meetings with each other, but Parliament has concluded for the winter recess without a solution.  The Greens are opposed to off-shore processing, and this does raise an interesting and very difficult question.  Should one stick to one’s principles or be prepared to compromise in the short term – in this instance to save lives? Again it should be an issue for good leadership and bi-partisanship. Australia actually receives a very small percentage of asylum seekers. We take 3%, while the US take 17%, France 12%, Germany 10%, and Canada 6%. The number one country of origin at the moment is Afghanistan and these people are demonised when they try to reach Australia, although we are fighting the same “enemy” in Afghanistan.

THE INTERVENTION:  While we were all diverted by the asylum seeker crisis, or watching Wimbledon, the Senate in the dead of night shamefully passed a 10 year extension to the highly-criticised Intervention in Aboriginal communities. Of course THIS issue has bi-partisan support, and the government did not even allow a Parliamentary Committee to subject the laws to a human rights test.  The Labor Party do test my patience and support to the absolute limit, but the alternatives, in my opinion, are much worse!

SYDNEY MORNING HERALD: As you have probably gathered the SMH is my favourite paper and I am often quoting from it. It is under threat. They have lost their fabled “rivers of gold” classified advertisements which have mostly moved online and earn much less. One has to suspect that Rupert Murdoch’s splitting of News Corp into Print and Entertainment companies may be a protection against the repercussions of the UK phone hacking scandal. In Australia he owns 70% of the print media, so many of us rely on the mostly good and objective reporting of the Sydney Morning Herald, or The Age in Melbourne.  However, Gina Rinehart now nearly the richest person in the world has bought 18.7% of the Fairfax company that owns the SMH and has no compunction in throwing her considerable weight around. The company has not been well run, but Gina has far Right political views and a determination to defeat the elected government, a view that seems to be shared by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers.  The issue has raised very interesting questions about editorial influence, media controls, and the life expectancy of printed papers versus online readership where already 75% of  SMH readers have moved. My 90 year old mother is furious and not sure she can make the transition to Apps and iPads –  not that I have!

50% of people now get their news through social media and I fear news will be reduced to tweets!

Chimp and bird

CENSUS: Australia’s 2011 census figures have been released. There are now 21.5 million Australians with 548,370 identifying as Aboriginal. Our average age expectancy is for men 76 (Aboriginal men 67.2), and women 84 (Aboriginal women 72.9).  Mandarin has now replacing Italian as the second most used language at home. While Hinduism is the fastest growing religion, “No religion” replaces Protestantism as the second “religion”, behind Catholicism, although their numbers are dropping.  This is hardly surprising with the appalling scandals emanating from the Vatican with accusations of drug money laundering, death threats and their failure to address child abuse by clergy.

JULIAN ASSANGE: I’m not sure how he envisaged getting from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and to the airport without arrest  for breaking his parole conditions, even if Ecuador offer him asylum.  He is ignoring the recent “Surrender Notice”.  I would agree that the US Grand Jury most probably has a sealed indictment against him. Apparently poor Bradley Manning has been trying not to implicate Julian over the information he provided to WikiLeaks, and he has virtually sacrificed his life, possibly naively, in the interests of freedom of information. Bradley has been psychologically tortured in solitary confinement, and the US are most likely hoping to make a deal with him to then move on Julian. Apparently the US cannot attempt to extradite him from the UK because the Swedish case takes precedent, as may a “bid for asylum” over “extradition”.  See Julian Assange’s interview with President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa here.

The Australian Government seems to be just going through the motions of pretending to care for Assange.  He says he has not seen any Australian consular staff since December 2010 – and just gets the occasional text message: “can we do anything for Mr. Assange?” A friend, a little miffed on behalf of the people that have lost their bail surety asks “what exactly is Julian expecting the Australian consular staff to do?”

dolphin

MISC STATS: There is now LESS social mobility in the UK, and LESS economic mobility in the US where 2 million people are in jail; the Indian economy is slowing; 5 million children smoke in Indonesia; in Australia, 58% think Australia should remain a constitutional monarchy (the Queen looked as if she nearly enjoyed her Jubilee – I’ve got nothing against her personally); 3% of our top ASX 200 companies have female executives and there is only a 14% female representation on boards; there is an obesity epidemic (Nauru 1st, USA 9th, Australia 21st), and we are fast catching up. All our well known billionaires are huge – Rhinehart, Packer, Palmer, Forrest, and Tinkler – is this indicative of  their rapacious appetites and attitude to life and our environment?

While 1 billion people live in poverty, the world produces twice as much food as we need.

MAIL: Thanks to Elaine for these photographs (above) and to the photographers concerned, and Jade my Ecuadorian correspondent. Thanks to Deb for the amazing images she sends me too. Several people commented on Ricky Gervais saying in the lead into the BBC interview about Christian (May blog), that animals were not there for our amusement.  He was in the studio to promote his latest program Life’s Too Short –  and I don’t think dwarves are there for our amusement either. For the record, I have never found him funny.

An installation by English artist Philip Beesley titled 'Sibyl'. Photo: AFP

An installation by English artist Philip Beesley titled ‘Sibyl’. Photo: AFP

BIENNALE: The 18th of  Biennale of Sydney has opened (above) and is spread around the city in various venues with artists from all over the world – until September 16th.


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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.