Nick Mooney looking at a diseased devil in a pipe trap; trap invented by Nick

As Tasmanians, we are increasingly anthropocentric, reluctant to self examine, and too often believe that we are hard-done-by,  and our attitudes are having dire consequences for our natural environment.

There are Tasmanians, and others from a bigger world, who despair that most of us seem to want this wonderful place to be ordinary.

The bad start we did not need was repeating the classic colonial mistakes of dispossessing the original inhabitants and exterminating species with a zeal smacking of a communal tantrum at being forced here. The Black Line of 1830 reflected the racism of “terra nullis” as the Buckland and Spring Bay Tiger and Eagle Extemination Society of 1884 (£5 for each fully grown tiger, £2/10s for every half grown tiger and £1 for each eagle) was pure European ‘predator hysteria’. Both grim influences still lurk barely beneath the social surface.

We reached a humane low with local hysteria at the prospect of helping some strangers at Brighton; and this from a population itself largely refugees of some sort.

Lake Pedder and the Franklin River protests didn’t really damage us but the attempt by a forestry mogul to bribe a politician did. Premiers rebadged combativeness as decisiveness and public trust plummeted; too many leaders just love a fight. Claims and counterclaims reach the ridiculous, scuttlebutt gets valued, people don’t know what to believe and withdraw to imagined certainties (consider the forest peace talks). Conspiracy theories, uber-scepticism and their own experience become standard currency. Consider those myriads of letters to editors from those who “know” there are no foxes in Tasmania because they haven’t seen one. Talk about homocentric hubris! On that subject, one might note the fox caught in a rabbit rap at Riverside in 1972, an incident nobody ever challenged and compare it to the automatic, glib, dismissal of the pile of contemporary material evidence; a sad reflection of modern mistrust in government.

The growing disdain for science is scary, the Leader of the Federal Opposition recently calling climate change science “crap’’ simply because acting might cost, feeding what might well be a fatal fascination with ourselves; it’s stark raving obvious that it will cost us more than dollars if we don’t act decisively.

Nick Mooney communing with a batch of feeding devils at Geoff King’s ‘devil restaurant’

Weeks ago I heard part of an ABC panel broadcast on human population (9 billion-plus by 2050 with three born every second) where some unnamed gent said there was no overpopulation problem since we can just produce more food and wasn’t extinction natural anyway? Well, yes Einstein; it’s the rate that’s not! It’s all very well to ``go forth and multiply’’ but that’s not licence to trash the place.

It is said the way we treat our disadvantaged is a good measure of society but I’d add that the way we treat the natural environment, vital to life, reflects our intelligence.

We are surrounded by litmus tests; rubbish dumped roadside is gobsmacking (check out Grasstree Hill Rd), as is off-road hooning in sensitive areas and wildlife chewed up by carelessly controlled pets or flattened by drivers hurtling along, usually to do bugger all a bit earlier.

Tasmania is outstanding for shot-up road signs, something correlated with roadside shooting of wildlife, outstripping anywhere I’ve seen in the US (so much so a calendar is in the offing). This vandalism reflects an odd bitterness, an ugly cynicism that’s nothing to do with our celebrated, witty irreverence for authority.

With anthropocentricity, ``speciesism’’ emerges. Native species only get funding if they are of use to, or a problem for, people or are endangered (even then they have to be spectacular or cute).

Thus, we often know more about rare or eccentric species than the drivers of our ecology and since rescue is not usually attempted until species are endangered, more basket-cases are absolutely guaranteed.

Nick Mooney with robber crab on Christmas Island

New enthusiasm for devils, until very recently reviled and persecuted by many Tasmanians, has more than a hint of fashion about it. The challenge, of course, is to use such attention to more fundamentally change attitudes. Oddly enough, our self interest may be working in the devils’ favour via their ugly cancer “ugly’’ gets sympathy but “cancer’’ really grabs our attention. I bet if they were dying prettily of something else, few people would give a toss.

We should stop partisan assessment of land and consequent politicising of species. The inland Tarkine is not exceptional for Tasmanian devils, nor is it an area damaged enough by mining, forestry and roads that more will not hurt. The real value of the area is wilderness, what the world is fastest running out of. Yes, limited mining is possible there, just as is a cable car on Mt Wellington and careful commercial development in national parks but only genuine collaboration will get us development worth the damage.

Critics refer to the more than 40 per cent of Tasmania reserved as freakish. It’s not. The country Belize has more than that proportion. It also logs its forests but in doing so it strives to protect tourism. It has huge borders with poor neighbours, an amazing racial mix, is peaceful and oddly happy with negotiation and compromise the norm. There are lessons there.

Do we want to be famous, like Japanese whalers, for killing some of the largest living things on earth just because we can? We do need forestry but it should be overwhelmingly based on plantations. Sure, forestry is sustainable if one simply considers trees felled and regrown, but by definition, logging of trees older than rotation times is not. Authenticity is vital and we must stop fabulously cynical actions like that of a couple of years ago, declaring marine reserves without protection in the Bruny bioregion.

We have to stop making decisions because we get tired of thinking. More electricity is not as important as better use of current supplies. Solar, geothermal and/or many small, vertical-axis wind turbines at points of use may be better than wind farms. But if have them we must, huge turbines should be subject to ``three strikes and your out’’ in regard to, say, chopped-up eagles.

In 2012 it seems crazy to be clearing even more swathes of land. Perhaps we should be considering the pool of cleared land in a more co-operative, strategic way (that will get me removed from a few Christmas card lists).

Our enthusiasm for traditional stock animals and Atlantic salmon and bizarre reverence for introduced deer and trout tells me we are far from imbedded here. If we ate the half million wallabies culled each year, perhaps farmers might make a dollar from them and reverting to common local fish such as mullet, snotties, Jack mackerel, whiting, blackback salmon, flathead and squid, we would better value this fantastic place.

The importance of education just can’t be overstated. Just as a student must now go into debt to get a good education, we should accept serious education debt as a state investment. Education will reduce health costs.

Since our social divide is mostly about use of natural resources, I believe the bigger world that education brings will lead to a better understanding of where we fit in the natural environment and give shared ownership of problems and solutions.

Nick Mooney started his interest in wildlife as a youngster, going to the University of Tasmania and eventually working as a State Government wildlife biologist for more than 30 years. He is well published and travelled, mainly to find out how others tackle the same issues. Since leaving his full-time job in 2009, Nick has worked in small ways for industries such as mining and tourism. He believes connecting people with nature is the way to develop empathy, and that education will help people find ways for humans and wildlife to get on better.

An edited version of this article first published in The Saturday Mercury Soapbox.

First published: 2012-06-04 03:52 AM