The other day as I was walking in my local suburb with the dog child, I noticed that yet another house had been bulldozed to the ground to make way for yet another new build. But this was no ordinary house and certainly not a tumbledown. Well-maintained, it was an elegant and gracious Victorian-style home enclosed by a bluestone wall with a polished brass number plate. In fact, it was smart enough to have statues in the garden. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl – albeit in a Southern Hemisphere setting – I used to peek through the fence, admiring the porch with the tiled floor, the wrap-around veranda and the ornate cornices on the roof. This is the kind of house I would buy if I won the Lottery, I told myself.
I was aghast seeing it demolished and furious at the waste of materials – those lovely long sash windows – and the senselessness of it. And this during the summer that Australia has been experiencing the worst bush fire season in its recorded history, with over 2000 homes destroyed. One the hand greedy developers and fickle homeowners and, on the other, individuals and families powerless to save their homes from being razed to the ground by ferocious fires.
Whatever your views about climate change and its impact on our environment, one thing is indisputable. The way we are living on planet Earth is not sustainable. We rape, pillage, plunder, pump out pesticides and plastic, spend, acquire, amass, throw away and then start over again. And we don’t learn from the past or heed the warnings. Think of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring published in 1962, considered to be the book that kick-started the global grassroots environmental movement.
And I’ve just read – and very much enjoyed – John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. In 1960 Steinbeck set off in a truck converted to a camper van on an epic journey across America with his standard poodle, Charley, a colourful character in his own right. It’s a wonderful tale full of rich and lyrical observations of the natural world – especially the giant redwoods in southern Oregon, amusing anecdotes about the different states he passes through, and chats over coffee and whisky with a cast of quirky characters he meets on the way. But it’s also deeply reflective and the themes he raises are still relevant today.He laments the amount of waste (including wrecked and rusting cars) in American cities, and the amount of packaging used in every day life: “I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness – chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea.” He talks of towns encroaching on villages and the countryside, supermarkets edging out ‘cracker-barrel’ stores. “The new American finds his challenge and his love in traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry.” And he encounters political apathy – life seems to revolve more around baseball and hunting than discussions about the respective merits of Kennedy versus Nixon in an election year. Sound familiar?
Steinbeck died in 1968, just eight years after writing this book, at the age of 66. I wonder what he would have made of the digital era. I suspect he might not have been much of a fan. “No region can hold out for long against the highway, the high-tension line and the national television.” And he rails against trailer homes, a tax efficient form of property ownership with an inbuilt form of one-upmanship as owners constantly upgrade to a better model. Overall, he comes away disenchanted.
“We have in the past been forced into reluctant change by weather, calamity, and plague. Now the pressure comes from our biologic success as a species. We have overcome all enemies but ourselves.”
How prescient, and how uncomfortable, especially given the recent outbreak of Coronavirus. Let’s face it, humans are the problem. Planet Earth can do without us, and most likely will cast us aside – as insignificant specks of dust – unless we learn to live in harmony with the ecosystems that support all life, giving us clean soils, air and water.
Rather than getting depressed and defeated, however, it’s vital that we use the current level of global discontent to campaign and advocate for change to policies and practices that reduce emissions and promote sustainability. And as we do that, let’s not lose sight of the many positive initiatives being undertaken by changemakers, entrepreneurs, inventors and scientists to tackle social and environmental challenges. It’s not all bad: just this week I read that one of Britain’s largest builders, Bovis Homes, is incorporating “hedgehog highways’ into existing and future housing – hedgehogs walk more than a mile each night foraging for food, but numbers have dropped significantly due to habitat loss and pesticide use. A nice win for biodiversity!