Book review: Into the Woods by Anna Krien

Deep down in our bones we must know – we must know that nothing we do is done in isolation. Cause and effect: how did it get so noisy in between?

Into the Woods

It’s hard not to talk about the climate and weather when it’s so in your face, and you spend a significant amount of your spare time cleaning up after it. We had a hailstorm with the ferocity of a tempest last weekend. One moment I was in the vegetable garden doing a bit of weeding, the next I was running for cover as hailstones the size of golf balls were hurled from the sky. Water tanks overflowed, gutters strained under the weight of the ice, paths washed away and torrents of water formed creeks where none had run before.

It was another of those moments, increasing in their frequency, where I marvelled at the awe inspiring ferocity of nature as she strives to demonstrate for humanity that climate change is real. Meanwhile many of our political leaders still grasp desperately to denial and the power bestowed on them by lobbyists, the powerful elites in the mining industry, and the likes of the Murdoch Press.

…those that have the power to change the situation are too scared to do anything in case they lose that power.

Into the Woods

I am half way through reading Anna Krien’s beautifully written narrative non-fiction book Into the Woods about the struggle over Tasmania’s wilderness areas, the people who exploit them and the people who try and protect them. Krien’s work is an exploration of the polarised and conflicting convictions, motives, emotions, power dynamics and allegiances of those involved in the struggles over the forests.

On the rear window of almost half the cars I see, there are stickers in eternal argument with on another. ‘Tasmania: The Corrupt State’ and ’Save the Styx’ versus ‘Greens tell lies,’ ‘Greens Cost Jobs’ or simply ‘Green Scum’ – slightly tamer versions of older stickers that read ‘Keep Warm This Winter: Burn a Greenie.’ It is said each glut of car stickers in Tasmania signals a new chapter in this intense and deeply personal debate that has been going for forty years.

Into the Woods

Krien speaks to everyone on her investigative search for information and understanding: activists, greenies, loggers, politicians, resident citizens. The only obviously absent voice, because they refused to speak to her, is Gunns who hold the economic monopoly over the logging and wood chipping industry in the state.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that deforestation and forest degradation contribute 17% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions

Into the Woods

Reading Into the Woods has echoes of the debates that happen all over the world in places where natural heritage and human greed come into conflict. Big companies chasing profits by selling products for humanities insatiable appetite for consumption of oil, coal, gas, timber, minerals, and land. Big public companies motivated by shareholder profits that have significant influence over the politicians they lobby and fund, stand in opposition to the passionate defence of forests and rivers and oceans by activists and environmentalists, with politicians riling the camps to maintain conflict in order to further their own agendas. Because conflict demands taking sides and creating allegiances, and allegiance translates into votes.

The activists tread a fine line between drawing attention to threatened areas and provoking resentment that can ultimately backfire against the forest.

Into the Woods

We are all complicit in the supply chain that leads to the destruction of our environment. We influence it in the day to day decisions we make about consumption, by how we vote, what we will tolerate, and what actions we are prepared to take to preserve the natural environment that sustains us. Krien’s work meditates on the world we have made and the complexity of the choices we must make. Into the Woods has astonishing resonance for the current re-ignition of the climate change debate in Australia as bushfires continue to rage across the country.

Most people travelling through Tasmania will never know of the long-running game of hide-and-seek taking place in the labyrinth of logging roads beyond the bitumen.

Into the Woods

It is often not until something impacts us in a direct and personal way that we take notice. This summer it seems that Australia is getting a taste of the future. It is an experience that has bought the issue of climate change into the fore again, while politicians of the day continue to try and smooth the way for them to get back to doing very little about it.

If anything there appears to be an indignant kind of mateship here, a loyalty that precludes empathy

Into the Woods

As I have been reading Into the Woods and Krien’s struggle to understand Tasmania’s relationship with the wilderness I had been pondering our current governments stance on climate change. Is it some kind of misinformed ideology? Religious beliefs? Naivety? Ignorance? Shape-shifting party power dynamics that mean being bold would result in loss of power, possibly being knifed by your own colleagues with the help of the Murdoch Press?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a logger or a greenie,’ she says, ‘it’s the fact that our government thinks its electorate are a bunch of dimwits.’

Into the Woods

The rhetoric about maintaining the coal industry is about jobs, but I am reminded of a section in Into the Woods where Krien notes the primary argument for logging in Tasmania was jobs. Then she goes on to write that in reality machines may be a bigger threat to timber jobs than ‘any greenie’. I suspect the same applies to the coal industry, which is increasingly automated. Then I saw a piece of Michael West’s investigative journalism called Dirty Power made for Greenpeace. It’s a social network analysis of connections between the Coalition and the Coal Industry, and is fascinating viewing. After seeing it I concluded the primary motivations to maintain the status quo must be a particular blend of allegiances, greed and power.

Standing on a lookout with the maps spread out around us, I can imagine how easily deals might be done in boardrooms, where wilderness is reduced to abstract numbers of hectares and its fate sealed with a handshake.

Into the Woods

While Krien was writing her book, I was studying climate change at university; reading Thoreau, studying bushfire behaviour with Kevin Tolhorst, and reading documents like the Intergovernmental Panels on Climate Change reports predicting would happen without action to reduce greenhouse emissions. I am sad to say it all appears to be starting to come to fruition in a much more obvious way.

Why Tasmania?’ Barry Chipman once asked me. He’s right–in the greater scheme of things, the island is nothing but a drop in the ocean. But its story is universal–and what goes on in Tasmania goes on in the mainland, goes on in the Pacific islands, in other continents, until it comes straight back over the ice to Tasmania again. You can follow its story like a ball of wool, get tangled in it and unravel it.

Into the Woods

Once the summer is over and the fires are out, when the smoke has cleared and the first green shoots start to appear in the charred remains of Australia’s forests I can’t help wonder what will happen. Will we all breathe out a sigh and go back to doing what we’ve always done as our memory of what happened fades? Or will our collective shock at what we have done to our planet, and its consequences maintain enough rage to motivate citizens to drive our coal loving, climate change denying political leaders and their allies to take steps to make the changes we need to at least try to get a different outcome?

Some scientists are beginning to describe the modern geological era as the Anthropocene, the sixth in a series of mass extinctions, all said to be caused by extreme phenomena, in this case the harmful activities of humans. Perhaps even more poignant is biologist Edward O. Wilson’s description of the period that will follow. Wilson says it will be ‘the Age of Loneliness’–a planet inhabited by us and not much else. In his version of the future there is no apocalypse, no doom, no gates of hell, no wrath of god or mass hysteria, only sadness. I wonder if perhaps the Age of Loneliness has already begun, its effects far more complicated than we realise.

Into the Woods

I highly recommend reading Into the Woods, for its insights into Tasmania, the politics of forestry, its resonance with the global debate about climate change and for the beauty of its writing.

Our beds are burning…

Happy New Year! This is not a writing post. It is another rant about some of the things I thought about whilst enjoying a beautiful evening in a bushland setting on the Yarra River on new year’s eve. Feel free to turn away, normal writing programming will resume next week.

I had mixed feelings about celebrating new year’s eve when catastrophic bushfires were raging across the country destroying some of Australia’s most precious bushland, decimating wildlife populations and ravaging human communities in their path. Despite the valiant efforts of underfunded volunteer fire fighters, Australia’s east coast has been burning since September 2019. Many of the fires remain out of control and will likely continue that way throughout the summer unless significant rain falls on the fire grounds.

Canberra was rated to have the worst air quality in the world on Wednesday due to smoke, killing one elderly woman on Thursday.  Meanwhile Scotty from Marketing (aka PM Scott Morrison) kept up his ‘nothing new to see here’ stance over champagne at Kirribilli house and entertaining the Australian and New Zealand cricket teams. On Thursday he delivered a press conference, and was on the back foot.

Of course Scotty from Marketing’s claims that climate change doesn’t cause bushfires, and Australia has always had droughts are technically correct, but incomplete and misleading. Suggesting the best way to respond to natural disasters is by ‘doing what we’ve always done’ sounds like a commitment to kick back and allow the problem to perpetuate. And saying Australia cutting emissions will make no difference globally is shirking responsibility. I bet he’s thanking his lucky stars that the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide released by the current fires don’t count toward the countries emissions footprint or he’d have to do a lot more creative accounting than he is already to meet our Paris targets..

Climate variability does influence fire and the changes we are experiencing will make fire management more complicated because it alters ecosystems function. Fire is a physiochemical process that can be represented by a simple equation: fuel + oxygen + heat. Remove one from the equation and fire cannot take hold, turn up the volume of the elements and the frequency and intensity of bushfires increases.

Climate change contributes to creating the perfect weather conditions for dangerous bushfires. CO2 concentration impacts the amount and composition of fuel loads because it alters the growth rate of plants, and thus the frequency and intensity of fires when they occur. Increased and more extreme temperatures reduce humidity and moisture content, compounding drought conditions caused by diminished rainfall. Drier conditions bring vegetation closer to its ignition point and ensures it burns hotter and faster once ignited. Extended drought reduces fires intervals and the wild winds caused by changes in air pressure create perfect conditions to drive wildfires to their most dangerous conflations. Wildfires themselves then contribute to perpetuating climate change because they release a lot of greenhouse gas.

We are fast heading toward a new normal of longer, hotter, drier fire seasons and more intense fires. In Gippsland, rainforest that has never burnt are being engulfed. It’s likely that some plant and animal species may not recover because available habitats for some organisms will be diminished and shorter fire intervals may not allow time for even fire adapted plant species to mature. The result could be local extinctions due to an absence of seeds.

Contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth…reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Darwin, The Origin of Species

We do not survive in isolation from our environment. We are like the frog, who when placed in a pan of tepid water that is slowly bought to boil, does not perceive the danger of its situation, does not attempt to jump out and gets cooked. We are blind to our own growing vulnerability. Despite the scientific evidence, the Australian government has no credible policies to address climate change – either to reduce our greenhouse gas pollution and transition to clean energy, or to invest in disaster management and adaptation to build resilience to cope with the new normal. Thoughts and prayers and patience will not solve this wicked problem and I suspect history will reflect poorly on many of the current world leaders.

In the absence of political leadership we place our hopes in the likes of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg to remind us of our collective failings and inspire action by uniting young and old to tackle contemporary environmental issue. Scott called for patience on Thursday, but it’s time to stop being patient and force the hand of the global political elite who prefer denial and maintenance of their ties with fossil fuel industries to carefully considered policies to a more sustainable way of living. My hope is that this bushfire season will spur more citizens into action. That we demand our governments take climate change seriously, start to think long term about minimising our contribution to emissions and begin to make the structural adjustments we need to build climate resilient communities.

Images: contemplating all that could be lost

Burnt stumps and smoke after control burn, Warrandyte

God, fire and politics

I was going to do a bookish Christmas post, but have concluded that Christmas is a bit overrated. Besides, a few things have got my goat this week, so a pre-Christmas rant is in order.

On a day of 44 degrees in Melbourne, when half the coastline of the country is ablaze, and NSW is in a state of emergency, my dystopian fantasy of our future world is right on my doorstep and plastered all over the media. Meanwhile, our political leaders continue to bury their heads in the sand about climate change and the environment. I use the term leader loosely as it’s an attribute I feel is sorely lacking among our current political class. The best Scott Morrison seems prepared to offer is thoughts and prayers in its place.

You may be wondering why a fiction writer is having a rant about politics on a blog about writing? As it happens the crime fiction manuscript that I will start querying in the new year has political hypocrisy as one of its central themes, and it is something I am both fascinated and repelled by in the real world as well.

Morrison has gone to some lengths to avoid engaging in discussion about climate change and has pushed his perverse nothing to see here stance while communities are raised, flora and fauna are decimated, and city populations choke on the smoke. Earlier this month the man determined holding a press conference about his controversial Religious Freedoms Bills was more important than showing leadership about the bushfires. The first version of the bills had been heavily criticised by faith and secular groups alike, and I can tell you the second version is no better.

While Sydneysiders were gasping on smoke, Morrison was touting a package of legislation with potential to significantly change Australia. It may prevent many individuals accessing services such as medical, education, employment, aged care, and some commercial services on the basis of their otherness. Not to mention the Isreal Falau clause about how we can interact on social media. It is the most hateful piece of legislation to be tabled in some time.

I find it curious that institutions that were called out on poor governance, lack of transparency, and accountability in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse should now be deemed in need of the types of protections that will enable them to be even more closed and secretive by excluding anyone they view as other from their ranks. It strikes me as a recipe for more festering problems and institutional failure.

The religious freedoms debate started as a knee-jerk reaction to a small group of ultra conservatives railing against a secular state and afraid that allowing gays to marry would cause the sky to fall. After years of preventing progress in this area these conservatives were over ruled by the Australian public who voted in favour of same sex marriage. The religious right were offered a review to assess the state of religious liberty in Australia by the government as a consolation prize for the postal vote on same sex marriage to keep them sweet. Phillip Ruddock was tasked with overseeing the review. The first airing of the reviews outcomes was in the form of leaks of key findings around the time of Malcolm Turnbull’s demise. The leaks exposed the fact existing law already exempted religious groups from discrimination laws and enabled them to discriminate against teachers and students. They could sack teachers and expel students of diverse sexualities already if they chose to – it caused a moment of outrage, that many may have forgotten.

Subsequently Attorney-General Christian Porter was tasked with turning Ruddock’s review into legislation. It took an extraordinarily long time because ultra conservatives did not just want anti-discrimination laws for religious groups, they wanted a positive right to discriminate. Any reasonable person would agree that an individual should not be discriminated against on the basis of their faith, but what the religious right wanted was a weapon to strike out at people they deemed unworthy, like the LGBTI community, not just a shield to protect their faith. The laws are not about freedom to speak ones religion, but freedom for institutions to hire, fire, deny service, insult and humiliate based on an individuals personal characteristics. The cynic in me can’t help thinking Morrison may have chosen that moment on 10th December to announce the bills, with Australia burning in the background, to invoke some kind of symbolic fire and brimstone moment. But in reality who knows what Morrison really thinks about anything (he abstained from voting on same sex marriage)? He appears to be a man who will go wherever the favourable winds of power blow.

On the same day as focussing on a bill few deemed necessary, Morrison insulted volunteer firefighters by downplaying their work. Two CFA volunteers died fighting fires yesterday, and three more were injured. I wonder if Scott still thinks they really want to be doing this job?

…they’re tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities…

Scott Morrison

All the volunteers were, foregoing income and time with their families to risk their lives fighting fires with often substandard equipment, yet Morrison was more interested in announcing legislation that has never been needed, and has the potential to create great divisions in society.

The wife of a firefighter wrote a heartfelt response to Morrison’s insensitive comments about our volunteer fire fighters that touched on another of Morrison’s blind spots – climate change. The blog has had over 80,000 views in a week. Remember Morrison is the guy who loves coal so much, he took a piece (which had been cleaned) into parliament in order to demonstrate his committment to a carbon-intensive economy and mock those concerned about climate change.

In November Morrison declared the bushfires had nothing to do with climate change and has been actively and publicly trying to shut down climate protesters because he doesn’t like their message, and clearly struggles to understand the science. He’s since made some concessional comments that climate change may be a factor, though I suspect that’s because he’s afraid of losing public support, he must have felt the winds changing. One wonders if he is confusing his own beliefs with science. He’s a Pentecostal. The evangelic religion emphasises the idea of the Rapture – that when it arrives, the chosen will ascend to heaven while the rest of us suffer the Tribulation – fires, floods and famines that will kill most of us, while he and his fellow chosen believers wait for the Second Coming.

Meanwhile, Scott has packed up his family and gone off on holidays. I don’t actually resent Scott having a holiday, we all need one now and then after all, but the act does expose a nasty element in his makeup and a big hypocritical black hole in the mans psyche. You might think that comment a bit harsh, but let me take you back to the Black Saturday fires that started on 7 February 2009 in Victoria.

I remember the day well as I was at home and could see the red orb thrown by the fires over the King Lake Ranges from my house. Apparently my town was spared by ten minutes and a wind change, my cousin wasn’t so lucky – her place burnt to the ground. In the aftermath, when people were looking for answers, and perhaps a few scapegoats, an ambitious young politician called Scott Morrison made an appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program and had a few things to say about the fact that Police Chief Christine Nixon left the incident room and went out to dinner that night.

“She’s clearly made a bad judgement call. That happens to people from time to time, but this was a very serious issue…I think there are very serious concerns in the community about exercising judgement, and it’s incumbent on all of us in public life to make decisions following that in the best interests of the ongoing nature of the program.”

Scott Morrison, Q&A 2010

Christine Nixon ultimately lost her job over the dinner decision. The comments then, and Morrison’s actions now, are an indication of the shallowness of the mans convictions. Ultimately he’s simply playing the politician, but his actions in recent weeks also call his judgement into questions based on his own benchmark. The image I have of Morrison lands somewhere between a crazed religious zealot determined to impose his beliefs on all of us, and Nero fiddling while Rome burns. The BBC delivered an interesting summary on Australia’s leadership failure on climate this week.

He’s not my Prime Minister, never was, never will be. I just hope the rest of Australia wakes up to his disastrous Prime Ministership soon and vote someone in capable of real leadership on the big challenges of our time.