the new nature: book review


This book, by Tim Low, is full of interesting stories about how nature changes, how this affects, and is affected by, us humans and all the other species that together make up the idea of nature

It's not a new book. It was first published in 2002 and has been updated a bit for this new edition. It's not about a particular aspect of our complicated environment. Tim looks at the big picture, and links all these stories into a narrative that gives a way of looking at, and evaluating, changes that are happening all the time around us, and responding to these changes.

It's about trying to get rid of our preconceptions and prejudices, our comfortable black and white thinking. It's about the risk we incur when we rely on our emotions and avoid thinking. Like, for instance, our beliefs that in relation to the environment humans are bad and animals, especially native animals, are good and in need of our protection.

The reality is that sometimes there are too many animals in a habitat that can no longer support them. They cannot survive in such numbers, and the stark choice may be to let them starve or cull them. A recent discussion paper by the Department of Environment, Water and Planning raised the question of the usefulness of wildlife shelters caring for injured animals in these kinds of situations.


Not surprisingly people were outraged at the idea that wildlife carers may be banned from saving native Australian marsupials. The reality is they do this work because it makes them feel good. Their work just doesn't necessarily fit with a plan based on scientific evidence, to improve biodiversity.

This book also debunked my claim to help the urban environment by having a wildlife friendly garden.


" Housing estates are very destructive and no amount of tinkering in the garden can alter that... We can't really create genuine rainforests and wetlands up by the barbie - this is naive. The real value of nature gardening is the contact it gives us with nature. We want birds and butterflies because they brighten up our lives. We don't want grasshoppers and moths, not because they need conserving less, but because they don't offer as much pleasure. Wildlife gardening, for most people, is more about personal gratification and flight from guilt than true conservation. We should not pretend that good deeds done in gardens atone for crimes committed elsewhere."

It doesn't make for comfortable reading. Australia is the worst country in the world for destroying forests and land clearing, and has the highest rate of mammal extinctions. We have politicians who are intent on supporting an Indian company, Adani, to build a new, huge coal mine in Queensland, despite even the banks refusing to finance it. And the state government of Victoria recently extended the licenses of two dirty brown coal power stations for another 20 years!


Tim Low talks about change in terms of winners and losers, opportunities and threats. Overall there are more losers than winners. But the more we understand the bigger picture, and some of the complexities and dilemmas, hopefully the more effectively we will be able to argue our case for stopping, or at least slowing the ongoing environmental degradation.

I find it impossible to summarize this wonderful book. Just read it!




Comments

  1. It sounds interesting and depressing at the same time. The US is doing a pretty good job of destroying its natural areas too - and it's not helping the world as a whole move in a positive direction either. However, until seawater engulfs Mar-a-lago in Florida, I don't see any likelihood of constructive action on the part of our current administration and, even then, the principals will probably be occupied full time trying to collect insurance damages.

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    1. Hi Kris, Ha - yes, I can imagine that! Your current POTUS generally makes his priorities horrifyingly clear.

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  2. Thank you. Definitely depressing reading, but hiding away from things doesn't make them go away. I will hunt it down.
    And really, really hope that we don't let Adani (with a its woeful environmental record) build a huge mine. Particularly not there.

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    1. On the whole I find our politics depressing and alienating. Jobs vs the environment? As if you can separate them ...

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  3. This is totally new reading for me, Catmint. Actually we are accustomed to protect nature, save cubs of bears, wolves, wild boars, squirrels, etc. Recently I read that wolves have so bred in some area that there were allowed to shoot them so that they do not harm the farmers. The same thing happens with squirrels: first, they were expanded in the parks and now it's written that they are carriers of many dangerous diseases to humans.

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    1. Hi Nadezda, this book helps us to understand the complex interactions and choices when we decide to intervene in the ecosystem. I thought of it this morning at the bus stop waiting for a bus. There were lots of large noisy excited birds, Little Wattlebirds and Australian Magpies, in a tree, their calls attracting more and more birds. Then I saw two terrified possums trying to escape, running up and down along branches. It was a brutal jungle scene in suburbia, very unsetting. Too many birds. Then the bus came.

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  4. I am not familiar with the book, but I am not sure that I agree with the premise based on what you have outlined. One author’s opinion doesn’t make it gospel.
    As for backyard gardens not making a difference it is simply not true. It may not work for all species but it can assist many. The Monarch Butterfly is a great example in North America; planting milkweed upon which the Monarch is entirely dependent has measurable results on population trends, and more and more people are adding milkweed to their gardens. Native vegetation consumes less water and does not require constant attention to protect against a dry spell or an unexpected overnight frost. I could go on but you get my point, and there are many dedicated scientists working in the field of ecosystem restoration who advocTe for this point of view.

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    1. David, thank you so much for this comment. Usually I like to think of myself as a critical person, but this time I failed to evaluate the piece that I quoted. Local governments employ ecologists and there is an overall plan to link public green spaces and private gardens to provide corridors for wildlife. I won't change the post, but I will try to make amends by writing a post some time about these wildlife corridors.

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  5. That makes uncomfortable reading and I still believe that gardening with nature in mind is a benefit. Yes, it makes me happy to see and hear all the wildlife in the garden, which wasn't here 28 yrs ago. We now have so many bees visiting, bees need so much help here as so many chemicals are used on farmland. I also welcome the moths which come in the evening as they are food for the bats. I also put up with the moles that are ruining my lawn, live and let live is my motto.

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    1. It would make me happy to see and hear lots of wildlife, but years ago there was much more, I think partly because over the years people have replaced gardens with houses that practically fill the whole block. And I remember clouds of moths flying around lights at night, now I hardly see any. This book does talk about this - climate change leads to winners and losers.

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  6. Interesting topic. It sounds a little controversial, but that's always worth some thought. I don't know if I totally agree, but I do know that the suburban gardens around here have too many rabbits, so hunting them wouldn't bother me at all. The ecosystem is so out of balance that it's hard to get new native plants going without the rabbits eating them down to the ground! Argh. Thanks for the book suggestion!

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    1. Hi Beth, I don't think I have really managed to do this book justice, so I hope you'll be able to read it and see what you think.

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    2. Hello Beth: "Too many" rabbits is a very anthropogenic judgement. What is too many? Is it only when it disturbs what a human observer perceives to be excessive that it is "too many?" It is likely that human changes to your local landscape have caused rabbits to prosper and now that they have done so you are quite sanguine about killing them. You may know that the Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, and perhaps on earth, and existed in countless millions until humans exterminated them all. Their enormous population was entirely natural, but I can safely say that if they could return from the dead today and populate the area in their former numbers they would be declared hyper-abundant, unnatural and would be subjected to persecution again. We humans are strange and merciless creatures.

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    3. We humans may be strange and merciless, but we're not the only species that has a destructive effect on the environment. Think of buffaloes and beavers, for example. Of course, no other species competes with us regarding the scale of our destructiveness.

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  7. Not all scientists would agree with Tim Low about the role of wildlife-oriented gardening in city and suburbs. The American entomologist Doug Tallamy has done research showing that home gardens can be critical for supporting wild insect and bird populations. Perhaps conditions in Australia and North America are substantially different, though.

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    1. Hi Jason: I think many scientists here would disagree with this hardline stand of Tim's. I think Tim would think there is a use for wildlife gardening, but it's limited.

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  8. It is good to make us think about our gardens. I hope that mine helps to bridge gaps for sunbirds - since we are only a few houses from the urban edge and Table Mountain National Park.

    I have to choose my words when I come up against - insects in my garden, how do I get rid of them, they are eating the leaves!!
    One garden blogger said she likes to see nibbled leaves. That plant is earning its place.

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    1. Diana: I like to see nibbles on leaves, but if the leaves are getting decimated , then that becomes a dilemma, what to do?

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  9. The author is quite cynical. I just read that bees in city centers are more successful than bees in the countryside. Because city gardens have more flowers and fewer pesticides than farmland. He may be right in many ways. We have the same discussions over here about the usefulness of wildlife shelters caring for injured or starving animals. But of course our country is so much smaller than yours.

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