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Renegotiating Nature, by Peter Christoff

The need for a complete reorientation of environmental politics?

The problem with nature

Nature has long been ‘denaturalised’. Since the 1980s, geographers, cultural theorists, historians and philosophers have problematised terms like ‘nature’ and ‘wildness’ as social constructs. Meanwhile the idea of ‘wilderness’ has been thrashed as racist by Indigenous activists.

While marking out ‘nature’ as a mutable social construct, academics have nevertheless also recognised the materiality of a nature not contingent on human existence, perception or conceptual framing. This recognition, however, has often been accompanied by a mind-bending and mind-numbing debate over how humans are part of or apart from nature, over the extent to which all human actions and their consequences are natural whatever the outcome, and over what material constraints or ethical guidance may exist for human interventions in the natural world.

For instance, in The Death of Nature, Bill McKibben famously argued that ‘by changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning: without it there is nothing but us’. Despite the many problems with this view—for instance, that it artificially separates humans from nature—it rightly shows that our relationship to the world around us is, understandably, more troubled and anxious than ever before.

Arguments about how alive, half dead or dead nature/‘nature’ is might seem arcane. It’s hard to dispute the lively non-human otherness of a shark or a tree, even if it is subtly genetically modified by global warming. However, as I’ll suggest, these arguments are of increasing importance to the logic of modern environmentalism as technological innovations and the impacts of human actions commodify and reconfigure the non-human world at every level from the molecular to the planetary.

Australia’s environment movement still—despite its growing focus on climate change, coal exports and emissions—predominantly defines itself as ‘Nature’s champion’. In its campaigns to ‘save, protect, and restore’ iconic sites and ecosystems from the impacts of destructive industrial practices, the movement’s staple discourse largely remains a preservationist one that builds on the Romantic tradition of valuing pristine nature—a nature unchanged by humans. This reflects both the long-established scientific and public interest in the Antipodes’ unique flora and fauna, and the new language of rights—in this case, the ‘rights of nature’ to exist for its own sake.

Yet, with Indigenous settlement and then European colonisation having transformed Australia’s natural environment, and with global warming further refashioning ecosystems at an accelerating rate, it is hard to understand precisely what the environment movement is now trying to protect. In all, given these cultural complexities and material changes, the movement’s seemingly straightforward relationship to nature is growing increasingly uncertain and its identity as nature’s defender increasingly unstable.

Australian nature, past and present

Indigenous hunting and burning practices influenced the survival, abundance and distribution of many Australian species, and changed the incidence of wildfire and soil and stream conditions across much of the continent for at least 60,000 years before European colonisation. Indeed hunting and fire use are thought to have contributed to the extinction of the Antipodean megafauna during the Pleistocene and early Holocene, although the relative importance of human activities and non-human climatic influences in relation to those extinctions remains unclear.

Given this extensive cultivation and transformation of Australia’s pre-colonial biological landscape—creating what Bill Gammage has called ‘the biggest estate on Earth’—the Romantic preference for ‘wilderness’, a goal that the Australian movement pursued without qualification until some three decades ago, was wilfully blind to the residual evidence of human modification. It was also deeply offensive to Indigenous Australians, who view it as a further erasure of their long association with the landscape—a landscape from which they have largely been expelled.

Following European colonisation, Australian nature changed again. The abundance and distribution of many native plants and animals were again profoundly affected once Indigenous fire management ceased in southern and eastern Australia. Meanwhile alien species, accidentally or deliberately introduced over the past two centuries, became ‘naturalised’ on the mainland. The invasive standard bearers of what Alfred Crosby once termed ecological imperialism—rabbits and foxes, cats and dogs, carp, cane toads, salmon, trout, horses, cattle, camels, deer, pigs, buffalo, starfish, mynah birds, and a multiplying host of insects, diseases and weeds—spread ineradicably through Australian ecosystems, variously causing massive erosion, changes to riverine and marine systems, and the decline or extinction of native species.

Finally, to these pressures one must then add the cumulative ecological impacts of industrialised farming, fishing, forestry and mining, and also urbanisation. In combination, these forces have greatly altered further and in some cases devastated Australia’s ecosystems. Australia’s world-record number of mammalian extinctions, which seem to have occurred in four waves post 1788, can be largely attributed to the combined force of these three clusters of pressures—altered fire regimes, the introduction of feral species, and industrialisation/urbanisation—over the past two centuries.

In this sense, the goal of protecting or restoring terrestrial ecosystems untransformed by Indigenous or European human intervention was always a fantasy for most of Australia. Examined closely, both the conceptual and material distinctions between ‘wild’ and ‘changed’ nature blur into distinctions between degrees of transformation or degradation determined by different types and intensities of human management and un/intended impact. The environment movement could at best seek to restore approximated pre-1788 conditions, aiming for the relative ecological intactness of Antipodean nature before European colonisation.

The future is not what it used to be

Global warming is changing the patterns of Australian rainfall and its land and water temperatures, and exacerbating the intensity and frequency of its heat waves, wildfires and floods. Last summer, during January and February, over seventy fires burned across 100,000 hectares of Tasmania’s remote forests and high plains. The fires in its Central Highlands World Heritage area—exacerbated by the hottest, driest spring on record—burnt over 11,000 hectares in areas that contained relicts of Gondwanan vegetation that had not experienced extensive fire for millions of years. The impacts on the ancient fire-sensitive semi-alpine flora were catastrophic and irreversible.

Then in March and April, ocean warming—driven by an El Niño accentuated by global warming and among the three strongest ever recorded—caused the worst coral-bleaching event recorded for the Great Barrier Reef, affecting over 1000 kilometres (some 93 per cent) of the reef and devastating much of its northern reach.

Such changes are jumbling the building blocks of life in Australia’s land and oceans, refashioning our biological landscape in ways that will make earlier human impacts seem trivial. In general, ecologists remain uncertain about the adaptive capacities of many of the species potentially threatened by global warming. But those with limited capacities for in situ adaptation or dispersal are threatened with extinction by climate-driven processes of habitat dislocation and fragmentation. There is strong scientific support for the argument that ecological resilience needs to be extended and enhanced beyond existing biodiversity hot spots, enabling many more ecosystems to serve as buffer zones. But how this is to occur—or indeed whether it is actually possible—remains unclear.

As Bruce Stein and Rebecca Shaw have commented, ‘today’s protected area networks and conservation concepts and practices were developed during relatively stable climatic conditions and under a dominant theoretical notion that ecological systems tend toward a natural equilibrium state which one could manage’. The Australian environment movement resolutely continues to focus its nature campaigning on strengthening Australia’s network of national parks and marine reserves, valued and protected for their beauty and their relative biological intactness.

This approach to biodiversity preservation is internationally supported, including by the Convention on Biological Diversity, and there has even been talk of intensifying it by campaigning around the notion of ‘Nature Needs Half’, recently supported by a coalition of major Australian environment groups (though, one asks, if ‘Nature Needs Half’—the claim relates to physical space—then which half should be preserved given climatic impacts? And how does that work for marine ecosystems?).

Yet the static, spatially segregated environmental-management regime that evolved in the twentieth century to manage the competing demands of farmers, loggers, miners and environmentalists will no longer serve. As key spokespeople for the national American environment organisation The Nature Conservancy recently noted, ‘conservation’s continuing focus on preserving islands of Holocene ecosystems in the age of the Anthropocene is both anachronistic and counterproductive’.

This does not mean we should dismantle our national reserve system. Existing ‘wilderness’ and biodiversity reserves will provide sanctuaries of ecological resilience in the short to medium—and perhaps even long—term. But as the examples of Tasmania and the Great Barrier Reef underline, fragmented reservation offers decreasing protection from climate change’s intensifying impacts. In a warming world in which ecological parameters are radically mobilised, a ‘whole-of-landscape’ approach to biodiversity protection becomes critically important.

A ‘whole-of-landscape’ approach to managing and perhaps ‘relocating’ native species and ecosystems is likely to clash with comparable demands from industrial agriculture and forestry. For instance, climate change will also force the transformation, relocation or abandonment of various types of farming across our continent. Declining rainfall will drive pastoral activity out of what are already semi-arid zones and will reduce the range of cereal crops in southern and eastern Australia.

While some parts of northern Australia may become more agriculturally productive, overall a significant drop in output is expected as warming increases. For instance, Australia’s Murray–Darling Basin (MDB) produces 40 per cent of Australia’s farm produce by value and utilises some 70 per cent of irrigated land. Economist John Quiggan warns of threatened water availability, loss of irrigated agricultural production and collapse in economic returns in the MDB under conditions of significant warming (4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100).

Warming will make growing stone fruit, apples and grapes impossible across much of their current range. We are already reading of winegrowers buying up land in Tasmania, which is expected to become a haven for production in coming decades.

Renewed competition between farming, carbon farming, forestry and biodiversity-protection interests will intensify as Australian and global food security comes under increasing pressure. In combination, these emerging pressures pose significant challenges for existing environment-protection values, practices and institutions.

Other problems also abound. As we know, invasive species have contributed significantly to the recent extinction of native species and permanently altered Australian ecosystems. The environment movement aims to protect and restore ecosystems and species defined as ‘native’ because they are in situ and free of ‘introduced’ influences. However this notion of nativeness is also increasingly problematic.

Species—both native and ‘naturalised’—will adapt to climatic pressures as best they can. But human intervention may be required to increase native species’ climate resilience, using genetic modification through hybridisation, breeding or technological manipulation and/or by facilitating their relocation. The managed relocation of native species to new potential habitats will involve a new style of ecological manipulation akin to the work of the ironically named Acclimatisation Societies, which oversaw the attempted Europeanisation of the Australian landscape in the nineteenth century through deliberate species introductions.

Such choices will involve the preferment of some species and the neglect or sacrifice of others. These problems go beyond the issue of ever-more-intensive adaptive eco-management. Climate change threatens to make both the fashioning of novel ecosystems and ecological triage—concentrating limited resources to save what can be saved—necessary matters for debate and decision.

Moreover, under conditions of accelerating climate change, we will be increasingly tempted by radical and risky techno-fix solutions. Airborne particulates from dirty industrialisation are responsible for a phenomenon known as ‘global dimming’, which has held down the warming effects of already emitted greenhouse gases. Without such pollution, the global average temperature would rise by a further 0.5 to 0.8 degrees Celsius—well beyond the close-to-1.5-degrees-Celsius aims of the Paris Agreement—even if all greenhouse emissions ended today.

Over the past three years we have already seen global temperatures leap to new highs—partly a consequence of the slowing of economic growth in China and its successful program of air-pollution reduction. It is a tragic paradox that global warming will initially rise faster if China successfully does what its citizens and the rest of the world want it to do: cut its greenhouse emissions and domestic air pollution by reducing its use of dirty coal.

Climate engineering brings with it a cluster of problems to do with precaution, risk and informed and participatory decision-making aimed at governing technologies that may be borderless, uneven, unpredictable and potentially damaging in their impacts. But, given the prospects of ‘locked-in warming’, the movement must consider accommodating or even supporting some forms of climate engineering—such as widespread reforestation, algal biosequestration coupled with carbon capture and storage, and temporary atmospheric injections of sulphates—to reduce the current burden of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

Instinctively allergic to such developments, the Australian environment movement has struggled to determine a coherent position on the governance of these possible trajectories. Confronted by increasing and accelerating warming, inadequate budgets, and a public probably focused more on ensuring human disaster minimisation and relief than ‘saving nature’, what values, processes and targets will the environment movement champion?

Managing nature in flux

I have argued that the mobilisation of animals, plants, microorganisms and Earth-system processes by climate-driven disturbance will generate novel and constantly changing terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and that such ecological turbulence will make conventional ‘restorative’ environmentalism impossible—indeed, possibly meaningless. Stein and Shaw have rightly noted that ‘conserving biodiversity in an era of climate change will depend on a sound understanding of the magnitude, rate and timing of climate shifts, and of how these are likely to affect the processes that sustain species and habitats of concern’. Such understandings will have to adapt as circumstances change.

At the same time, an intensified yet flexible regulatory regime will be required to deal with biodiversity conservation under the dynamic conditions that climate change is generating. It will be required to integrate evolving environmental knowledge with new forms of environmental management, and to generate a workable consensus around the coordinated use of public and private land to meet intensifying demand for food production, carbon farming, and biodiversity protection ‘for its own sake’.

Adaptive biodiversity management in a warming world implies a wholly new approach to ecological management. At best this will depend on the wide range of actors, (re)mobilised by these circumstances, agreeing on flexible biodiversity-planning overlays that affect all forms of tenure—public, private, urban, rural, Indigenous and leasehold. Such outcomes will require deliberation to find common ground, a substantially different ‘recognition’ of what is valuable in the natural world, and a correspondingly different regime for the governance of biodiversity protection. At worst, the state will again become a battleground while conflicting interests and demands fight to govern these competing pressures.

Together, these prospects pose profound challenges for the movement and its ‘nature-based’ identity—as well as for current environmental institutions and their associated legal arrangements. As global warming resets natural parameters, collective decisions about ever more extensive and intensive forms of environmental management will be required in order to deal with climate change’s worst impacts. Environmentalists will be called on to support or oppose choices determining which species and ecological features will be preferred.

Although the focus is slowly shifting to ‘adaptive ecological responses’—attempts to respond to emerging conditions and even think about creating new ‘resilient ecosystems’ by managing landscapes and relocating and perhaps transforming species in order to save some scraps—the Australian environment movement has yet to fully consider the ramifications of this change. The movement has yet to systematically consider the values or arguments it might use to support, enable or oppose the prioritisation, protection, movement or modification of species and parts of ecosystems under these new conditions.

Nature protection (or ‘preservation’) seems now to be revealed as neither more nor less than a backward-looking running defence of places, ecosystems and species against the more extreme degrees of human impact. At best, the movement’s nature-based politics resolves into a new form of pragmatic environmental welfarism. It enhances species’ and ecosystems’ temporary chances of survival in the face of mounting industrial and climate-related pressures, while maximising their evolutionary capacities by limiting direct and indirect human interference.

In the future, nature restoration can only seek to provide elements of an always modified nature with a state of relative (co-evolutionary) autonomy by minimising rather than eradicating harmful human influences. In the future this approach will be even more constrained, although perhaps possible in limited places at certain times.

In all, unamended, the earlier mobilising narratives of nature protection and restoration will collapse. This problem now appears, poignantly, at the heart of a key current campaign. The Great Barrier Reef has a special place in the history of Australian environmental activism: the struggle to stop oil exploration on the reef led to the birth of the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1965. At present, the ACF and other groups are fighting against the proposed vast Carmichael coal mine by linking stopping coal exports to saving the reef. But in truth, this magnificent iconic reef is a zombie ecosystem, condemned by warming, rising and acidifying oceans.

It is not alone. The World Heritage–listed Kakadu National Park has an extensive wetlands zone of 195,000 hectares that is just 0.2 to 1.2 metres above the mean high-water level, and vulnerable to a projected 10- to 30-centimetre sea-level rise by 2030 and 1 to 2 metres by 2100. Saltwater encroachment will have profound consequences for the park’s wildlife and for Aboriginal culture dependent on hunting and gathering in this area.

None of this suggests that the movement shouldn’t be campaigning desperately to limit the impacts of global warming and to halt the wilful destruction of impaired ecosystems and endangered species. But the problems for the movement posed by climate change clearly go beyond the issue of ever-more-intensive adaptive eco-management. The movement is understandably reluctant to ‘call it as it is’. It seems unable to develop a narrative that reflects on, mourns and mobilises around clarity and tragic insight. It is paralysed by the need to maintain the ‘hope quota’ of its campaigns through wilful denial. Ultimately, such calculated misrepresentations will erode its credibility.

Environmental pragmatism in warming times

The Australian environment movement faces compounding challenges as it grapples with the consequences of climate change. Its traditional identity and its preservationist discourse, reliant on simple binary understandings of nature (human/natural, transformed/pristine), were never well founded. The aim of protecting nature as a wild, untouched Other focused on a historical and ecological fiction, while, materially, Australia’s biological landscapes had been modified by humans for thousands of years before European colonisation.

Climate change is now accelerating the process of anthropogenic transformation and has further complicated the movement’s ambition to ‘save’ nature. Moreover, in settler-colonialist societies like Australia, the social landscape for environmental action has been recast through the recognition of Indigenous rights.

In combination, these changes require nature, and the politics of environmental management, to be conceptualised in new ways. If the movement doesn’t define what it values in the novel ecosystems that are emerging in a warming world, it may be ‘dealt out’ of the arrangements made to foster, use or defend this ‘new nature’.

For the movement to be included in those arrangements, its relationships both with nature and with society at large will have to be renegotiated. Indeed the Australian movement’s future identity—perhaps even its survival—depends on developing a more nuanced, reflexive understanding and narrative about nature that reflects these circumstances.

Practically, nature protection will become an ever-more-complex social and political task. Totalising notions like ‘the post-natural’ and ‘the death of nature’ are inadequate descriptors of the thickness or thinness of human influence on nature in the Anthropocene. They miss the continuing cultural vitality of the concept of ‘nature’ as the non-human world, and the vigour of nature in all its changing materiality. They only serve the narrowly anthropocentric ambitions of those seeking to colonise, commodify and transform what remains of the human and non-human worlds for purely human instrumental purposes.

Just as the partitioning into different use zones will fail to meet the future needs of biodiversity protection amid ecological turbulence, it will also fail to meet the needs of competing communities of interest. Alejandro E. Camacho and co-authors ask whether we

want to be curators seeking to restore and maintain resources for their historical significance; gardeners trying to maximize aesthetic or recreational values; farmers attempting to maximize economic yield; or trustees attempting to actively manage and protect wild species from harm even if that sometimes requires moving them to a more hospitable place?

To thrive—or possibly even to survive—humans will increasingly have to do all these things at the same time on the same terrain. This speaks to a necessary drawing together of the three strands of Australian environmentalism: resource conservationism, human-welfare environmentalism and preservationism. An inclusive and expansive redefinition of the ‘membership’ of the movement will also need to confront the interplay between environmental and Indigenous-rights discourses.

The state will also necessarily play an intensified role in producing a climate-adapted biodiversity governance regime. New deliberative and facilitative institutions will be required to enable previously competing interests to collaborate to handle a more unstable and complex nature. More stringent policy measures will be required— beyond the loosely ‘pluralistic’ approach (such as Landcare, Coastcare and catchment committees) prevalent in Australia today. They will need to redefine roles and responsibilities across the public/private divide (as is beginning to occur, for example, through the introduction of new planning regulations relating to wildfire). The movement’s organisations will have a critical role to play in ‘representing’ non-human nature in the work of these new institutions.

Of course such ‘managerial’ responses to a warming world do not tackle the core drivers –  including economic globalisation and increasing resource use under capitalism – of the Anthropocene’s negative impacts. The whole-of-economy and whole-of-society transformations needed to effect ‘green degrowth’ and ‘decarbonisation’ pose an additional profound challenge to the capacity and organisation of national and subnational environmental organisations, but they cannot be explored in this article.

In combination, these threats and changes underscore the need for an explicit ethical basis on which the movement can proceed. Elements of a ‘realist’ environmental ethics are already manifest in the key groups’ praxis, which draws pragmatically on values held in the three strands of environmentalism mentioned earlier.

By aiming to conserve the productive landscape (resource conservationism), protect nature that provides fresh air, beauty and enjoyment (human-welfare environmentalism), and diminish threats to species and ecosystems (a core aspect of nature preservationism), such campaigns draw on and integrate the three mobilising strands of the ‘Australian environment movement writ large’ and speak to their various—often disputatious—adherents.

What emerges as a guiding ethic looks very much like the environmental pragmatism described and advocated by Eric Katz and Andrew Light in the book of that name, which pluralistically accommodates a number of broadly compatible moral positions to then justify a coherent set of ‘practical strategies for bridging gaps between environmental theorists, policy analysts, activists and the public, working together in a single moral enterprise’.

The social and intellectual role of the movement thus now may be to try to facilitate convergence. In other words, rather than maintaining a narrative about restoring nature, the movement’s constitutive and unifying theme should emphasise commonalities around the reduction of suffering (including harm minimisation and precaution) for all species (including humans), now and in the future.

This ethic, and its associated duty of care, leads to very practical questions to be asked of proposals as wildly different as the modification of plants and animals to increase their ‘climate resilience’, the need to ensure effective cohabitation of production and nature conservation on private land, the exploitation of resources from public land previously reserved for nature preservation, and the implementation of certain climate-engineering technologies. Will it work without increasing pain and suffering? Is it reversible? Will its benefits outweigh its harms (now, and in the future)? How well can it address issues of environmental and social need and justice (especially for Indigenous communities)? Will it protect the most vulnerable?

This position lacks the simple emancipatory ambition of preservationist environmentalism and rejects the movement’s earlier Romantic protectionism. Instead it offers a less ambitious and more grounded Ark-based approach. At times it will be a salvage environmentalism, scavenging for opportunities. It suggests a new environmental politics—based on risk aversion, precaution, and the avoidance of pain and suffering, but with the protection of the most vulnerable as a priority. Together, these elements offer a unifying ethical position and an anchor for all those currently in warring camps within and around the broad environmental movement.

The Anthropocene we are moving into will not be post-natural, post-environmental or post-political. Non-human nature in the Anthropocene will survive as a necessary Other, albeit—to greater and lesser degrees—battered, modified and enraged by human influences. It will still need a champion. This remains the movement’s role, but it will now be one best sought and delivered through a unifying and pluralistic politics, and played out through new, inclusive and deliberative institutions.

A longer, fully referenced version of this article appears in Environmental Politics, vol. 24, No. 6, November 2016. To link to this article online: <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2016.1200253>

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