Saturday, 17 December 2011

Book review: Memo For a Saner World, by Bob Brown

I bought this book within about six months of starting work as a baby environmental officer in the construction industry. I was young and idealistic and felt like it was something I should be reading to maintain my integrity, you know, whilst I was being paid by the devil to watch trees being knocked down.

I put it down after about two chapters because I was bored out of my brain. Perhaps it was a sign of my shifting idealism; or the fact I didn't identify with it; or maybe those first two chapters just weren't all that engaging.

Fast forward five years, and I picked it up again as part of my commitment to read my unread books before buying new ones, as part of my 101 Things challenge.

It wasn't so bad upon the second attempt (mind you, I didn't go out of my way to re-read those first two chapters; I just flipped it open at the page where I had dog-eared the corner to mark my place, and re-commenced reading), but it really did run hot and cold for me.

Background info for non-Australians: Bob Brown is an Australian Greens senator - the first one, I believe -  who has fought passionately for the environment, particularly in Tasmania. He has led the Ausrtalian Greens party since their founding in 1992 and has been instrumental in banning logging in the Tarkine valley (and in having it declared as the Tarkine Wilderness Area) and also led the fight to stop the damming of the Franklin River. His politics are a hybrid of environmentalism and socialism. In more recent years he seems to have appointed himself the champion of human rights in Australian politics (mainly immigration and gay rights); and, as I write this, it occurs to me that this may actually be where he loses some of his would-be Greens voters. That he doesn't sacrifice his ideals to gain popularity is admirable, but as you will see in my write-up of the book, it may also be his downfall.

The book chronicles Bob's adventures in environmental protection. Each chapter is about a different campaign, and it is quite interesting to read about them. Some sections are well-written and fire up your anger at the disregard the government has for our precious and irreplaceable forests (if you know what project I'm doing at work at present you may find that statement grossly hypocritical, but my project **does** have a positive environmental outcome, unlike straight-out old growth cable logging). And some chapters had the opposite effect and fired up my anger at Mr Brown himself for being so ignorant and tunnel-visioned.

I will give you an example of the latter: One chapter chronicles the issue of an area of tidal mudflats in South (North? It's been a couple of months since I finished the book and can't recall...) Korea that is crucial to global bird migration. Basically, areas such as this act as a buffer between freshwater rivers and the ocean, and quite often filter what comes out of the river and soak up the grogans, which creates a rich (and stinky!) haven for nature to frolic about in. The tides then come in and pick up the worst of it and wash it out to sea.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that the North/South Korean environment wanted to build a sea wall around this mudflat (and probably have, by now) so that, instead of it being flooded by the tides each day and washed clean, it could be reclaimed as farmland. This was bad for two reasons: one, the grogans that came out of the river would settle there permanently and, over time, become hyper-concentrated intead of being washed out to sea; and two, the land would no longer be available to birds for migration.

So yep, this definitely seems like something that is pretty critical to fight against. And this chapter, as with all the chapters, is quite well written and presents some interesting information (albeit sometimes too much information - he came across, in some cases, desperate to show his achievements to the minutest, most mundane detail).

But do you want to know where he lost me? It was the part where he blamed the construction company as well as the government that approved the project, and my temper flared. For a moment I was annoyed at myself for having my "contractor's" hat so firmly on my head, but then I realised that my reaction was fairly well justified.

As an environmental and community liaison manager for a construction company, I cop public abuse all the time for the stupid decisions that the government makes. Generally, though, once a project has settled in and you've had a chance to chat to the locals and bring them cupcakes (yes, I really do that), they come to realise that we're just being paid to build it, and that my job is actually the last chance to protect the environment at  the end of a long chain of bureaucratic stuff-ups that allow sometimes questionable projects to go ahead. Fatalistic? Perhaps. Realistic? Definitely.

What Bob neglected to mention was that construction companies need to construct things in order to make money in order to employ people, and, as a socialist, he should understand that jobs are important. You know, unless you're okay with people sitting about, sponging off Centrelink... which some chapters kind of hint that he might be, but that's another story!

That he was having a go at the construction company was annoying in itself, but then he proceded to suggest that his followers do something that would really and truly have very little to no impact - he proposed that we all boycott Hyundai (the car manufacturer) by not buying their cars in order to hurt the construction company that had already won the tender and was half way through constructing the project.

Stay with me here.

Hyundai are the sister-company of Hyundai Construction, and were, in fact, originally the same company. They are now run separarely by two brothers.

Hyundai Construction were the company building the sea wall.

So what he was telling us to do was to not buy the cars manufactured by a company which is affiliated with the construction company inasmuch as that the two CEOs probably sit down to Christmas dinner together (or whatever festival they celebrate in Korea), but which does not share a common cash flow.

To me, that's like telling me not to buy SPC tinned fruit because Ardmona (both are owned by Coca-Cola Amatil now, unfortunately. On my list of things to do when I'm a bajillionaire is to buy back previously Australian-owned brands and products) are discharging post-production water containing certain chemicals into stormwater that are within the allowable legal limits, but which may, at some point in time, combined with the right conditions and a high level of exposure, be carcinogenic. (To be clear, I don't think they **are**, I'm just using this as an example!)

That's also like the girl I recently sat next to at a wedding (who may or may not read this blog, but I think that when we discussed it she realised that I disagreed with her!) who doesn't drink milk because it's cruel that the cows are impregnated every year to keep them from producing milk (um, which I'm pretty sure more or less happens in nature anyway - bulls will be bulls!; and I also have the feeling that milk continues to be produced as long as you continue to milk the cow, kind of like human wet-nurses continue to produce breast milk as long as there is a baby drinking it, but I could very well be wrong about that second part), and then the calves are "surplus" which is also cruel (um, I'm pretty sure they raise some of the calves to then go on and be - wait for it - dairy cows, and the rest of them, rightly or wrongly, and obviously mainly the boy-calves, go to veal. They don't just kill them and put them in the bin like they do with surplus puppies, which IS gross and wrong).

How did a book review turn political and then into a rant about humane milk production? Because it shows me that, whilst Bob Brown has some awesome values and has fought some amazing fights to defend the environment, he also has absolutely no idea how the system works. There are two perspectives here - some say that, once you understand the system you are in danger of accepting and becoming the system. But I say that in order to beat the system you need to understand it. He, apparently, does not.

I would encourage you to read the book anyway. Besides the two or three chapters that angered me or made me make weird little whiny-grunty-frustrated-this-guy-is-a-morong noises, there is some really good stuff in it. It didn't clean my conscience for being employed by The Man despite my personal environmental beliefs, maybe because the person who read this book a couple of months ago is not the same person who bought the book five years ago. Hopefully it inspires you and educates you to do your bit for the environment, and that's always a good thing.

And as for me? Well, a little while after I bought (and put down) the book, I realised that I have more power to save trees doing what I do and being paid by the devil, so to speak, than protesting the project in front of the state library. And I do. I work with and educate the people who are effectively paid to do the damage, so that they understand the impact of the works. We save more trees than we are obliged to and minimise impact in whatever we do. And I have learnt that nobody wants to do the wrong thing by the environment; it's just that they either lack the knowledge or resources do things the right way, or their own agenda - to feed their family - keeps them in the business.

I think Bob Brown would be better off trying to make some sort of environmental education mandatory for all politicians than telling us to pull jobs away from the people at the bottom of the food chain. If you want to ban logging, you need to provide an alternative means for the people who have been logging for four generations to make a living. Memo For a Saner World was probably an attempt to educate us on what has passed; but we, as a global population, need to be educated on what we are doing now and why that matters for the future.

I will also close by relaying what I said in my first job interview, all those years ago, in response to the question "Why do you want to work in construction?" "I'm a tree-hugger. And whilst I want to work in Parks or Natural Resource Management, I feel like I need to see the other side of the fence first to completely understand what I'm doing." Pretty insightful for a wet-behind-the-ears university graduate, don't you think? :) Hopefully before Bob Brown writes more books (mind you, this one was published in 2004 so he probably has), he spends some time on the other side of the fence.

Segue: a little while ago I bought The Secret Life of Wombats by James Woodford (it was BEFORE my book-reading challenge began, and it was a GIFT for my fiance else anyway, it's just that I started to read it while I was waiting for the bus home from Taronga zoo (which reminds me, I have a draft post sitting there about that trip))... anyway, it's an absolutely fascinating book and one I would highly recommend to anyone who loves critters (Grant loves wombats, which is why I bought it for him). The reason I bring it up is that it is written in a similar style to Bob Brown's book, with each chapter being about something different. Some of them hit in a big way and others miss a little, but most are spot on. Bob's were less-uniformly spot on. I should probably read some of his more recent efforts before saying that, though!

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