Damien Enright: Man is killing the planet, but can his ingenuity save it?

Damien Enright: Man is killing the planet, but can his ingenuity save it?
Houses flooded in Townsville, Queensland, Australia, this week. Unprecedented releases from the city’s swollen dam sent torrents of water down the Ross River and into the city. Picture: EPA/Dave Acree

BATS in their thousands are falling from the trees, a million dead fish are floating belly-up in the river, skeletal wild horses lie desiccated in the dust. There are dead camels, dead donkeys; death everywhere. This is climate change as manifest in Australia, says Damien Enright.

A granddaughter, presently roaming there with her partner, told me that crocodiles were leaving the flooded swamps and wandering into Townsville, where she’s camping. There are crocs stalking the night streets. It’s horror film, doomsday stuff.

With temperatures at 42C and rising to 50C, half of Australia’s 75,000 spectacled flying foxes, a creature upon which Queensland fruit growers rely for pollination, are dying of the heat. 10,000 of another bat species are dropping from trees, literally biting the dust. Heat beyond that which nature, over countless millennia, equipped them to survive, is so extreme it kills them.

The fish, some 100 years old, die in the Murray-Darling River when low temperatures kill the vast algae blooms blanketing the surface. As they rot, they take all oxygen from the water. The fish suffocate. Locals blame human mismanagement.

The rangy horses, tough as old boots, die of starvation when their last fodder-plants shrivel in the drought and when their last water hole becomes a sand pit. Starved and desiccated, the herd dies together.

Meanwhile, no-account creatures expire in their millions, unnoticed and unknown. For epochs, they’ve survived in deserts to which nature has adapted them, but climate extremes are so recent and unprecedented that nature can’t protect them. In the world changed by Man, nature is defeated. Man is the creator of the new order, lord of the Earth, seas and skies. And it’s apocalypse now.

Every day, science warns us about the fate coming down the tracks for humanity. This is for real, and we must face it, science says. We hope and pray, in our fashion, that some miracle will save the world and all that we love. But what is happening in the Southern Hemisphere today will be happening in the Northern Hemisphere tomorrow.

We’ve overstepped the limit and threatened our future. We’ve played as gods, treated nature with contempt, given no thought to its parameters, evolved over aeons, and now the reckoning has come.

Nature created a sustainable and fruitful home for mankind, and for the legion creatures and plants that share it with us. Our forbearers realised this and, until modern times, even the powerful acknowledged our dependence. The ritualistic giving of thanks kept this truth in focus.

Then, innovators amongst us forgot that the air, the water, the sun and the sea, the soil and the plants and the pollinators were the source of all life and that they had to be respected and nurtured, not toyed with, not wounded, not damaged, not overlooked.

Did they not see that there would be limits to the extracting and burning of what lay beneath the earth, and consequences to exceeding those limits? Did they not consider the ramifications of pouring the toxic detritus of mining into the sea, of stripping the land and plundering the oceans, that there would be limits to how much carbon the air could hold and consequences to producing carbon until it over-tipped the limits?

Carbon emissions warm the air and if the air gets too warm, ice melts, deserts replace meadows. Stripping and plundering leaves desolation; even a fool knows that.

But long-term studies weren’t done, or, where they were, were not acted upon. Our leaders allowed excess and we, the led, followed like sheep. Excess took precedence.

The planet was there to be raped and we raped it. We were the gods. We could change the world, and the systems it ran on, with impunity. We were lords of the universe or, at least, lords of this globe.

The time has now come when, if we warm the Earth one degree more, we will commit our children to working with ever-shrinking resources, while, globally, ice melts and earth bakes. Animal and plant species will disappear without our ever having understood their function (and function they have; nature does not create to no purpose; all life is a network of dependence.) And what, then, can we, you and I, do to avert this disaster? Take household action, yes, but only political action can make significant change. Nothing must we exploit that is not sustainable. If politicians with this priority are voted into office, it will be a start.

Perhaps, in a science fiction scenario, we will survive if Earth does not, a relict population from a dying planet in a human settlement on a distant star. We are ingenious. Perhaps, next time around, we will live sustainably, like nature itself. Perhaps this is our destiny, our evolution.

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