THE WORLD IS full of beautiful places. Beaches and oceans, cliffs, forests, mountains and valleys, deserts, rivers, islands, harbours and bays. Places where the sky is a perfect half dome, and others where it is pinched between mountains and buildings. These beautiful places have the power to inspire and delight, to provide respite and solace. They are depicted by artists and evoked by poets, and in some cultures assume a spiritual significance beyond their physicality. We flock to them in increasing numbers, maybe sensing that they will not always be there.
The speed with which climate change is reshaping the environment suggests that this sense is well grounded. Extreme weather events have become the new normal, once-dry cities are learning to cope with floods, coastlines are changing shape, long-standing records for heat and cold, rain and drought are shattered every year and the extinction count reaches new highs. The predictions are dire, based on science, observed and lived experience as images of catastrophic events are shared in a blink around the globe. We know that something is changing, but are uncertain what it will mean for life on Earth, and for its many beautiful places.
There is a growing body of thought that suggests civilisations are, in their essence, determined by the relationship between human beings and nature, that societies and cultures evolve in response to the environment in which people find themselves. Felipe Fernández-Armesto argues in Civilizations (Macmillan, 2000) that the relationship to the natural environment, recrafted to meet human demands, is the defining element of social organisation that, at its best, becomes known as a civilisation. From this grows culture, language, social and economic organisation, and the legacy of buildings, stories and knowledge.
Unforeseeable natural events have destroyed some civilisations – wiped out by drought, floods or other catastrophic events. But others have been undone by over-exploitation. As the great historian of civilisations Arnold J Toynbee is reputed to have quipped, ‘More civilisations die from suicide than murder.’
It is profoundly uncomfortable to think we may be on suicide watch, that country is being destroyed by human activity, but it may be useful to hold that thought. As scientists wrote recently in Nature Climate Change, the physical shifts in nature occurring as a result of unchecked climate change ‘will extend longer than the entire history of human civilisation thus far’.
THE CELEBRATION OF nature is evident in every civilisation, but in some the tension between natural and man-made environments has also been a defining characteristic. So, the British and European romantic poets and philosophers proposed ways of seeing at odds with the growing industrialisation of the age in which they lived. We are reminded of this bifurcation every time an English sports-loving crowd breaks into a spontaneous rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ and its evocation of ‘dark satanic mills’ and a ‘green and pleasant land’. The unofficial British national anthem conjures another world, one at odds with contemporary reality, one in which nature is idealised and industry is its opposite.
At the time William Blake was writing the poem in the early years of the nineteenth century, his intentions were, by most accounts, quite at odds with the twenty-first century interpretation of his words. His quest was more spiritual than literal, but he evoked an environment that feeds a sentimental, nostalgic impulse.
At the same time British settlers were trying to make sense of what they found in the Great South Land. Artists painted it, naturalists recorded it, surveyors mapped it and some diarists noted that the people already living here seemed to have a unique relationship with the land.
For those already here, the bifurcation of environment and industry did not exist. Had the new settlers delved deeper, the notion of a unique spiritual connection between people and place would have become clearer.
This is the defining characteristic of the oldest living civilisation, a deeply enmeshed connection between the physical and the human environment, one that informs culture and belief, and makes life sustainable.
Meanwhile, wave upon wave of settlers and explorers struggled to make sense of a land that was very different to the green and pleasant fields from which they had come. Artists captured it, some working through the prisms in their heads and others, less encumbered, made a different sort of sense of it; many writers were threatened by it, while slowly scientists, archaeologists and historians began to make sense of it.
The tradition of nature writing in Australia is very different to that in Asia, Europe and North America. But the uniqueness of what is here is increasingly inserting itself into the words used to make sense of this place.
So too the lessons of so many millennia of human occupation may be a useful tool in thinking about sustainability – about preserving and maintaining our beautiful places so that they can be enjoyed in perpetuity, not destroyed for short-term economic gain.
We are at a unique moment in human history. Never before has so much been known, never before has the path to preserving beautiful places and a range of civilisations been so sharply delineated, and yet we are captured by what writer Alex Steffen describes as ‘predatory delay’ as a result of deliberately confected confusion and fear.
But the enduring connection between people and nature remains, and is its own reward. Walt Whitman wrote: ‘After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on – have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear – what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons – the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.’
IN WRITING THE Country we seek to restore this sense of agency and optimism. To cherish the unique beauty of country and environment at a challenging moment, and to reinforce the point that we do not need to be on suicide watch, that there are lessons to be learnt and things to be done to ensure that a century from now the land, sea and air can continue to be enjoyed and provide sustenance for life and human civilisation.
Griffith Review gratefully welcomed the opportunity to work with the McLean Foundation and The Nature Conservancy to commission writers to explore the country and what is at stake at this moment.
26 November 2018