When you drive through the Tarkine wilderness, as my partner and I did this January, you encounter numerous highway signs noting that the Tasmanian devil remains endangered.
What, precisely, the authorities intend you to do with this information never becomes clear. Slow down, perhaps? Certainly, we saw far more devils dead on the road than we ever glimpsed alive, which suggests that lower speeds might make some difference.
Then again, the signs don’t mandate any particular limit, nor suggest anything else that individual motorists might do.
In any case, they lose whatever moral force they might have possessed as soon as you round another curve and confront the official notices on which Forestry Tasmania explains its operations in the Tarkine. ‘This is a working forest,’ the signs proclaim, a slogan presumably designed to chide the other, lazy forests cloistered in national parks.
Soon enough you discover what ‘working’ means, in the form of fields logged and bulldozed and cleared into a landscape resembling the Somme. Inevitably, you wonder about the impact on the Tasmanian devil, the creature about whose eminent extinction you‘d just been warned.
That’s the context for my summer reading.
In a secondhand store in historic Richmond, I picked up a copy of The Big Budget for Boys, a volume that appealed largely because of its lurid social realist cover painting. Blackie and Son’s published the magazine Boy’s Budget between 1921 and 1941; the yearbook seems (its flyleaf provides no details) to date from the late thirties.
The stories within describe various thrilling adventures (treasure hunts, cowboy tales, school hijinks, etc) calculated to please male adolescents. But the book also serves an obvious pedagogical function, inducting through fiction British schoolboys into appropriate ethical norms, political ideas and gender roles, with a breezy confidence you’d rarely find in children’s literature today.
The Big Budget helped me understand a little better the astonishing popularity of 12 Rules for Life, the self-help volume by the conservative charlatan Jordan Peterson, which presents a similarly assured moral didacticism—a mode deeply appealing to awkward young men.
But it also illustrated how the unabashed bigotry of the British Empire became central to individual subject formation. For in The Big Budget, becoming a man means, first and foremost, asserting yourself against racial inferiors.
In ‘The Thunderer’, Dick Ferrers reclaims his patrimony in Kenya by defying a rascally Dutch moneylender. In ‘Paches! An’ Greasers!’, Billy Sanford manages to shoot down both Apaches and Mexicans. In ‘Talking Drums’, Eric Benson represses a rebellion by the Kikiyu tribe, capturing their leaders and sentencing them, as the book happily explains, to ‘many months in our prison, working for the King they have defied’.
At the same time, if imperial masculinity proves itself through racial domination, it also rests, quite explicitly, on a conquest of nature.
Dick, for instance, earns the natives’ respect by punching out the moneylender. But he also becomes a ‘great baas’ by shooting a huge elephant (the ‘Thunderer’ of the title) and then casually plundering the graveyard full of ivory to which it leads him.
It’s an association that recalls the early history of Tasmania, where the colonialists launched their war against Indigenous society to facilitate the grazing of sheep and cattle – and then wiped out the thylacine to protect the same stock.
The extinction of the thylacine and the decimation of the devil left me thinking, as we visited the Tarkine, about Rambunctious Garden, a book by the environmental journalist Emma Marris.
Marris challenges the concept of ‘wilderness’ (a term often applied in Tasmania) suggesting that, though it underpins a great deal of environmentalism, it rests on fundamentally flawed ideas.
We tend to think of conservation (as the word itself suggests) in terms of the preservation of natural landscapes or their restoration to something like an untouched state. In either case, the project requires a historical baseline, the recognition of a chronological Ground Zero, before humanity began to shape nature.
But, as Marris argues, closer examination reveals most such dates to be entirely arbitrary. Across Europe, for instance, what’s taken as ‘natural’ often reflects thousands of years of agriculture and hunting, rendering any attempt to pinpoint a wild state largely moot.
In colonial settler states like Australia, the usual definition of wilderness pertains to pre-settlement. But we now know, thanks to Bill Gammage, Bruce Pascoe and other writers, that Aborigines deliberately shaped their environment through firestick farming and various kinds of cultivation. In that sense, the traditional vocabulary masks a racism not unlike that in the Big Budget: a tacit association of Indigenous people with indigenous flora and fauna, even though the distinctive landscape taken by whites to be natural actually seems to reflect the catastrophic breakdown of customary land management practices.
Marris also points out that the fetishisation of ‘wilderness’ fosters, in today’s climate, a deep political pessimism. After all, if you value ecosystems only insofar as they’re untouched by human hands, you no longer have much with which to work. That’s the whole point of the Anthropocene: humanity now affects everything.
If, on the other hand, you accept humans as part of an ever-changing nature, you can abandon an environmentalism based on the restoration of a prelapsarian ideal, and instead focus on the world as it exists today.
‘The pristine wilderness notion,is a historically created idea about what ought to count as nature, and there is no reason why we can’t change it. Just as the definition of citizen has changed to include more kinds of people as political ideas have changed, so could nature expand to include more kinds of areas. Many ecologists today argue that we have to expand it, as our increasing understanding of history and atmospheric chemistry has left us with no areas at all that have not been altered by humans. And we do change it, a heretofore unthinkable, exciting and energizing thought occurs: we can make more nature. We can make things on Earth better, not just less bad.’
It’s an attractive argument, and one with which I largely agree.
I do worry, however, that, with a certain spin, it might provide a quasi-libertarian justification for unbridled development. An awful lot, it seems to me, rests on the identity of the ‘we’ in that last sentence. Who, exactly, will be deciding how more nature gets made and the basis on which it might be done?
In that sense, it’s useful to read Marris alongside the recent book by the Japanese Marxist Kohei Saito. Originally published in German as Natur gegen Kapital (‘Nature Versus Capital’), Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism offers a profound new reading of Capital, based on Saito’s deep engagement with Marx’s unpublished notebooks. Following John Bellamy Foster and other recent scholarship, Saito rejects the traditional account of Marxism as a Promethean doctrine dedicated to the conquest of nature. Instead, he notes Marx’s surprisingly extensive research into the organic chemistry of his day, particularly in respect of soil depletion—a major environmental crisis for the nineteenth century.
This study, Saito argues, underpins the treatment of nature in Capital, in ways that haven’t previously been appreciated.
Marx, he says, rejects any simple division between humanity and nature. As animals, humans are part of nature. But nature’s also part of humanity, since, from prehistory, people have used the natural world (in the form of tools) as an extension of their own bodies.
To survive, humans must interact with nature, with this fundamental metabolism mediated by the labour through which we produce food, shelter and so on. But the way we perform that labour takes, throughout history, very different forms. Specifically, the labour inherent in capitalism creates a ‘metabolic rift’, a deeply reified relationship with the world on which we depend.
Saito (and, for that matter, Marx) would agree, I think, with Marris’s rejection of the ‘wilderness’ ideology, while sympathizing with her idea about creating ‘more nature’. But they’d also insist that the transformation of the natural world depended on a transformation of human society.
In Australia, for instance, environmentalism fairly obviously necessitates a confrontation with dispossession, not to reset the clock to 1788, but to undo the colonial practices that persist today.
It also means addressing the conditions under which we live and work, an alienation that renders the nature to which we belong deeply foreign to us. For, until we democratically control our own labour, we cannot consciously direct the metabolism between us and our environment, and so the natural world will appear (and, indeed, be) fundamentally other.
To put it another way, the struggle to save the Tasmanian devil, along with all the other species teetering on the brink of extinction, is also, at heart, a fight to save ourselves.
Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and broadcaster. He contributes a regular column to the Guardian Australia; he’s the most recent past editor of Overland; he’s a member of the 3RRR Breakfasters team. His recent books include No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson and Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right.