The Sydney Writers’ Festival discussion about our relationship with nature attracted some 800 people on Friday. On stage were acclaimed British author Jeanette Winterson, Australian writer, scientist and conservationist Tim Flannery and British writer James Rebanks, author of The Shepherd’s Life.
The energy in the Roslyn Packer Theatre was palpable when Tim Flannery began speaking about his recent trip to the Great Barrier Reef. “It’s dead. I don’t think the Great Barrier Reef can recover,” he said. “We’re getting to the last moments where it’s possible to do anything. We’ve potentially killed an organism the size of Germany; a self regulating organism which is one of the most beautiful and diverse on the planet.”
Dr Flannery, who is one of Australia’s leading thinkers and environmentalists, said the need to take responsibility and work out what it means to have a healthy planet was urgent: “We are the consciousness of the whole planet, we can see the big picture,” he said.
Ms Winterson also referred to the big picture. “When you see earth from space, isn’t she the most beautiful thing? An incredible jewel?” she asked the audience. The first image of earth from space was seen as the birth of the environmental movement, she pointed out. We saw “planet blue” from space and realised it is the organism we’re part of. “And we must look after her,” she said.
Dr Flannery said humans are the only species on the planet with the power to damage the planet to the extent we do, but also to heal it. “The planet is our body, we need to start creating a healthy body; that should be the human project,” he said. And we must understand what that means – a fully functioning body that integrates our cities and our farms and natural landscapes: “That is the real urgency, to give ourselves the time to work out what it means to have a healthy body, we need to start making real progress,” he said.
But how do we generate such change and how do we get the big guys to listen? “We need a firm belief that nature is central to our survival.”
Ms Winterson reminded the audience that our individual choices count, and no matter how small or how humble, we can all do something. “The food on your plate is the most political act you do every day,” she said. Whether it is supporting local farmers, paying extra for locally sourced food or cutting down your meat consumption, “If every single person is doing something, it will make a difference”.
As a clear example of our disconnection with nature, she laughing talked about her Twitter incident: when she Tweeted a picture of a dead rabbit she had killed for dinner, the Twittersphere erupted with outrage. “We live in a fantasy world,” she said. “It’s hypocritical bullshit”.
Being aware of the environment doesn’t mean we have to be tree huggers, she said. “It doesn’t need to be a question of either/or. I’m optimistic that we might find the balance. Great cities are a wonderful thing, as long as we leave space for nature.”
It is critical that we get these environmental issues onto the political agenda, with the elections coming up, Dr Flannery said. “This needs to be the Reef election, the fate of the Reef hangs in the balance right now, it will only be with us for a short time unless we get things right over the next few years”.
Looking after the planet is a global responsibility and we all need to work together Ms Winterson said – business, governments, scientists and ordinary people. “Often we take the message that science has offered us just for our own ends, and it’s been a tragic message since the end of the industrial revolution. It’s the myth we’re going to have to give up.”
Making a final point in what the appreciative audience found to be a transformational discussion, Dr Flannery gave some advice: “When it comes to your land and water, guard it with your life; it is life.”