Threatened species strategy seeks to marginalise science and stifle community dissent

The opening hour or so of the federal government’s Threatened Species Summit today was excruciating, but in the end, just enough science shone through the thick mist of marketing hype to offer a glimmer of hope.

lock the gate

Australian National University ecologist David Lindenmayer demonstrated that good science cannot be silenced or bought off, and delivered a sharp reminder of the need for governments to fund research and monitoring.

Andrew Campbell, director of Charles Darwin University’s research school for the environment, called out the federal culture of discarding policies after a change of government, and wasting time and taxpayers money on pointless rebranding exercises.

“We have built a forgetting system,” he said. Yep, that was the t-shirt quote that summed up much of the political propaganda being peddled at the summit.

And Dr Bidda Jones, the RSPCA’s chief scientist had the courage to stand up and question all the love in the room for 1080 baiting of feral cats.

Those were some of the all-too rare Emperor’s New Clothes moments at the summit. Much of the rest was depressingly cloying corporate and political sycophancy.

So many people described the summit as “amazing” (no, the Pluto flyby is amazing, but a room full of obsequiously compliant participants at a federal conference is surely not).

And federal environment minister Greg Hunt’s new Threatened Species Strategy was hailed by several people as “bold and ambitious”…….really? In 2012, Costa Rica became the first Latin American country to ban hunting of its wildlife, with prison sentences and hefty fines. That’s bold and ambitious.

As for Australia……..cracking down on land clearing and ending industrial logging would be bold and ambitious.

There were many elephants in the room, but the biggest were Hunt’s approval of the Shenhua open cut coal mine in New South Wales –which will involve clearing around 771 ha of koala habitat –  and the resumption of logging in the Toolangi forest, just up the road from where the summit was being held.

And yet Hunt talked about “avoided deforestation” as a means of cutting carbon emissions…….

What about the strategy? Shallow, politically self-serving, short on science and largely designed as a promotional vehicle for the government’s much-criticised Green Army program. Not much in it, and carefully assembled to avoid any whiff of controversy. So, no koalas……….

But some worrying trends emerged as the summit progressed. Firstly, the marginalisation of science.

One NGO even told the summit that “science was not enough” and other participants echoed this with comments such as “it can’t all be about science” and “we’ve got to look beyond science.” Why? Apparently science often gets in the way of “making tough decisions”…….like bulldozing koala habitat on the Liverpool plains……..

Secondly, there seemed to be an irresponsible attitude to animal cruelty.

Some years ago, a researcher in Canberra discovered that students at a local university were stealing, torturing and killing domestic cats. They saw themselves as eco-vigilantes, ridding the city’s suburbs of “ferals.” The researcher tried to report this cruel – and criminal – behaviour to the university, was reprimanded, and left shortly after.

And that’s why Bidda Jones from the RSPCA was bang on the money when she stood up and called out some of the more extreme cat hate-fest elements of the summit.

Do we really need a mobile app that encourages people to report their “cat eradications”?  Fine, have an app that allows people to log feral cat sightings, so councils and government agencies can map hot spots, but leave out the option of gleefully reporting a kill.

That’s just creepy, and psychologists have written extensively about the links between animal cruelty and violent behavior toward people.

And thirdly, there seemed to be a push to  corporatize conservation and silence community  dissent. In fact, Hunt talked about organising “major dinners” with philanthropists on the Fortune 500 list.

Hmm….don’t think the Toolangi Knitting Nannas will be invited to these elite, blue-ribbon dinners……..

Naomi Klein has written about this trend, and the role of Big Green groups (you know who you are) in  “casting corporations as the solution” to environmental problems and as willing participants in sponsoring conservation.

And finally, the summit seemed to delight in a  repugnant use of military language……. waging a war on feral cats, being in the trenches, drawing battlelines,  putting boots on the ground, the Green Army as foot soldiers……..on and on. Even the Anzac legend was invoked.

In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis said that recent world summits on the environment had not lived up to expectations because a lack of political will had undermined any effort to reach meaningful agreements.

And despite the Top 20 lists of priority species, the targets (2 million dead cats by 2020) and the talk of community alliances, the summit has produced little of substance.  But then, hard-sell marketing hardly ever does……..

About rosslynbeeby

Environment journalist & researcher, worked for Fairfax news & ABC Radio Australia - now independent & unmuzzled. Big interest in biodiversity & conservation research, policy shifts, greener cities, smarter farming & climate change. Awarded Asia Pacific Jefferson Fellowship (for climate change research ). Currently Australian & NZ editor for global research news service, Research Professional.
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1 Response to Threatened species strategy seeks to marginalise science and stifle community dissent

  1. Rainer Rehwinkel says:

    Great stuff ros


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