By Peter Bridgewater (University of Canberra), Associate Editor for People and Nature.

Deer in the Sundarbans, In Mahadevan’s Seeying beyond ourselves, Association of Commonwealth Universities Review

As an adjunct at perhaps too many Commonwealth Universities I should know about the Association of Commonwealth Universities Review – a biannual web-based and print publication that features “issues of the moment” with unreviewed articles from leading Academies across the network of Commonwealth Universities.  But I confess I did not, and was excited to see the December 2021 edition of the ACU review, entitled (Re)thinking natureThis a stimulating collection of articles that fits the “interest profile” of People and Nature (PaN) readers.

All articles are well-worth a read, with some familiar, some new, but all highly stimulating, ideas and themes written with the added liberty of no heavy hand of editor or reviewer straightjacketing it.

Since the Commonwealth is a C21st derivation from the Empire on which “the sun never sets”, the articles are from countries as varied as Papua New Guinea, Canada, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Australia and Zambia, and all are worth a read.  As a blog must be short it is difficult to be fair to all, but to start – two quotes really resonated with me.  Firstly, Kartik Shanker’s idea of “pristianity”: No wonder then that this movement to create pristine natural areas should become nothing short of a religion by the 20th century – one that might be called ‘pristianity’.  This perfectly paints the dilemma of politicians leaping on the 30*30 bandwagon on one side, with Indigenous peoples and local communities on the other. 

Illustration of a tiger by Sayan Mukherjee, courtesy of Current Conservation, In Shanker, 2021.

My second favourite quote is from Kumari Issur of the University of Mauritius: you, dear dodo, are the epitome of extinction. Thanks to Alice.  Here Kumari has a poignant essay on the dodo, and its rapid road to extinction.  Yet we need to remember that the hapless (probably delicious) Dodo was already nearly gone by the time Cook rolled into Australia and unwittingly unleashed a tsunami of change that now has Australia as extinction central for iconic vertebrate species.  The common themes that come up in different ways  are all about how people relate (or don’t) to nature, and the critical importance of understanding each other’s worldviews.  John Mweshi writesa seemingly favourable attitude to nature may mislead us to engage in activities that, overall, turn out to be harmful to the environment, while Lucy Richardson, from the perspective of psychology, reveals her epiphany that… environmental management’ wasn’t really about the environment, it was about people.

On the people front, another great quote from Kartik Shanker is “A famous (and obviously white) biologist has been quoted as saying: ‘It is difficult to visualize India without tigers. It will be like imagining an inky black sky without stars. But in whose imagination? Most people in India have never seen a tiger. And those who do encounter them as part of their daily lives often do not want to.”  In a different way, Adeniyi Asiyanbi tells us that A flip side of this violent plunder of nature and people is the often-forced constitution of spaces that are romanticised as untouched by (‘purposeful’) human activities: ‘wilderness’, coerced conservation areas, state forests, and so on. These are supposed last spaces of ‘pristine’ nature that must, ironically, be ‘saved’ from extinction by the same mode of relating to nature that underlies its devastation.  And Linus s. digim’Rina  tells us the doctrine of Christianity brought with it a heart-rending example of environmental destruction, as the forceful imposition of new ideas dislodged long-established indigenous notions of living well with the environment.  These words will doubtless shock the purists  but the reality is stark.  These are the truths many don’t really want to hear…

Erin O’Donnell  has a great review of the “legal rights” for rivers and other non-human entities. She writes: But if legal rights are to bring real and lasting justice to rivers and to people, we need to think carefully about the kind of legal model that will give us the outcomes we want. And that’s where it gets tricky.  Indeed, I believe it does get very tricky, and have written myself about the issues surrounding giving wetlands legal rights, as proposed by the Society of Wetland Scientists.  Legal rights for non-human entities (species, ecosystems) may simply help promote further confusion.

Illustration by Shivani Shenoy, courtesy of Current Conservation, In O’Donnell, 2021.

Finally, exercising droit du blogger, I conflate and paraphrase some words from Kokila Konasinghe, Selma Lendelvo  & Wilhemina Nuule, Tom Oliver, and Kumari Issur from Sri Lanka, Namibia, UK, and Mauritius:

Thousands of environmental disasters throughout history have taught us one great lesson: there is only one way for survival and that is to work together with nature, not against it. Yet talking about the degradation of the environment rather than of nature also reflects a subtle cognitive shift towards increasingly seeing human beings as exceptional distinct entities surrounded by a natural world from which we derive benefits.    It’s a reminder that our greatest hope of resolving the rift between humans and wildlife – as well as building local support for conservation – is to draw on the knowledge, experiences, and expertise of those with most at stake.  Without earnestly engaging in a truly transformative process, to rethink and to remodel our connection to our environment, to bring about a radical shift in our thoughts, attitudes, and practices; we will fail in riding out the storm that is the Anthropocene. But if we do embrace these “radical” ideas and ideals then we can undoubtedly not only ride the storm but prosper too.

This is such a great collection; please find a few minutes to read and treasure these gems. And if you are one of the authors, maybe consider reframing a little to the boring rubrics Journals insist on and submitting it to PaN?