Revisiting the Problem of Place

Long ago, I wrote a blog post I called A Problem of Place on my old blog, which I re-published here. I wrote that post soon after my move from the US to Australia. As I near my big move from Australia to the UK, this post is re-visiting the idea of place, but from a much different perspective. It’s a bit self-indulgent, so forgive me in advance; but this is what happens when you are sequestered in your house, contemplating another global move and finishing your doctoral thesis.  

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The Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, Michigan. I went to junior high and high school in a town near here. I feel no particular attachment to any place in this area.

I’ve said so many times in my life that ‘home’, for me, is linked to those I love, not particular places. I have no sentimental attachment to any one place on this planet as my ‘hometown’. In fact, I generally refuse to answer that question and love to list my hometown as “Anytown, USA” because I grew up in a few small towns in the Upper Midwest of the United States. These towns are interchangeable with many other small American towns (to me), and I feel no particular connection to any one of them.

When I hear others talk about their hometowns –  or when I have the privilege of seeing them revisit them – I am part envious, part fascinated, and part baffled. The rose-coloured hue of their reflections make sense, even though I don’t look upon places in my own past in the same way. Of course we’re going to remember the good things. Of course we’re going to think things ‘were better when’. It’s just human nature. I wear rose-coloured glasses sometimes too; I just don’t remember the good things about places as much as I do about people. Maybe that’s just because I’m an introvert, and there are few people I have become really close to over the years, so I hold those people close to my chest.

My envy comes from hearing them describe the little things: the smells, the colours, the small adventures, the view that a particular landscape is ‘right’ or ‘home’. A part of me wants that feeling. I am promiscuous when it comes to my love of landscapes, and can see beauty in many. I can’t imagine why someone would say Michigan is where the trees are the right height.* This is where bafflement comes into play. What does it feel like to attach so much value to a particular place? I watch and listen like an anthropologist studying a little-known culture, and I’ve been mentally taking notes for a lifetime.

To me John Forrest is the quintessential West Australian landscape. It can be stark, scrubby, and dry, but I love it.
To me John Forrest is the quintessential West Australian landscape. It can be stark, scrubby, and dry, but I love it.

The other day, when walking through John Forrest National Park, I had what felt like a revelation: this is the first time that I have felt an overwhelming sadness in leaving a place. I have been spending as much time as I can outside over the past few months, trying to soak up every last Australian landscape. A lot of that hiking has been alone, which has been exactly what I’ve needed. Because being alone has meant I can stop as much as I like to admire a tree, a rock, a lizard, a grasshopper, or a flower. Or just soak up the smells and, yes, even the sounds of loud Australian birds. There have been big things, too, like the echidnas, Tasmanian devil, platypus and (most importantly) wombats that I saw on my recent Tasmanian Bucket List Tour. These have all been moments that I have relished. Moments that I have wished I could prolong and am already wishing I could return to again.

Echidna searching for love on the other side of the road.
Echidna searching for love on the other side of the road.

Yet it has been the cumulative experience of the small moments that have had the greatest

Wombat on Maria Island.
Wombat on Maria Island.

impact, and that have led to the realisation that I am going to miss this place. Normally when I move, which I have done many times before, I think mainly about the people I will miss, and how I will keep in touch. I think about that here, too, but the keeping in touch doesn’t seem so unattainable now. In my eighth year as an expat, I realise that it’s not so difficult. But perhaps there is no surrogate for a place that you have grown to love.

When I talk about missing Perth, there’s a part of my brain that shouts at me:

A healthy Tasmanian Devil on Maria Island (they've established a healthy population there!)
A healthy Tasmanian Devil on Maria Island (they’ve established a healthy population there!)
I've been told by many people that eucalypts aren't as beautiful as other trees. But look at that form!
I’ve been told by many people that eucalypts aren’t as beautiful as other trees. But look at that form!

“Perth is just a bunch of suburbs!”. Of course that’s not what I am talking about when I say I will miss this place. I am talking about big, beautiful eucalypts. Whimsical grass trees. Morton Bay fig trees, with roots that seem set on conquering entire post codes. The smell of lemon-scented gums. Stubborn, strong-willed wombats just a short plane ride away. The bluest, sunniest skies I have ever seen. Where I am going, there is no replacement for these things. And I don’t know how to mourn for that loss because I’ve never experienced it before. I’ve never felt so much attachment to a place, and it feels like such an unlikely turn of events for the woman who never understood how a place and not a person could feel like home.

A weekend trip to Snowdonia is within my reach.
A weekend trip to Snowdonia is within my reach.

So herein lies the challenge: my person who is home….he is already in Liverpool, which will soon be my new residence. At the same time, there is still the pull of a new place that has become home, on the other side of the planet from my new home. I don’t have a way to reconcile those two opposing feelings, and I don’t have an eloquent way of discussing them, either. Whenever I discuss my hesitance to move to Liverpool, I feel like a petulant child. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and I am grateful. I love the UK, and I will be able to look out my window and see Wales, one of my favourite places on the planet. I can visit Europe for the weekend. When I talk about my reluctance to move, I am often dismissed. My fears of not getting a job in my field are unfounded, I am told. I will build new professional networks, I am advised. My dissatisfaction with the weather will pass, I hear.

But those things are not the crux of the issue. Those are the superficial things that make me feel anxious. The things that I can find words to discuss. This other feeling, about leaving this place, that’s a more difficult feeling to express, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer. I will visit Australia, of course. My in-laws live here. I may (I hope) move back here one day. I am an Australian citizen. Yet none of these things can remedy this new, unfamiliar ‘problem of place‘, where it’s not a matter of thinking a new place can solve all of my problems, but of wondering why I’ve become so attached to this one.

I don’t have a conclusion or an answer to this. Maybe being an expat and living in many different places across the globe – or even, perhaps, within a single country for some – will inevitably lead to a mixed bag of feelings ranging from statelessness to intense connection to places. This, despite the fact that you are neither stateless, nor do you belong to any particular place. When you are an expat, people will always remind you of that fact. My voice and my place of birth means I am painted with broad brush strokes, forming the outlines of what it apparently means to be “American”. I never really was, or will I ever be, accepted as Australian or or as any other nationality. So why the feeling in the pit of my stomach in leaving? It isn’t patriotism. No, I wouldn’t know what that feels like.

It’s more like mourning the loss of a loved one. So I suppose, just as people can be home, places can be loved like people. I get it now. Sort of. At least I am starting to get the gist, just as I am saying goodbye.

Field
Photo by my dear friend Lavida, who has moved to New York. http://www.lavidarose.com/photo-shoots

—– *Okay, that was a political ploy by Mitt Romney. But the sentiments are not far off from those expressed by people when talking about the landscapes they call home.

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Whither scenic beauty?*

I am currently doing my PhD field work, which involves interviewing people about the governance aspects of landscape-scale biodiversity conservation. Driving through a number of different landscapes over the past 5 weeks has reinvigorated my interest in the ways aesthetic preferences affect the way we interact with landscapes. At first aesthetic preferences seems a rather in banal aspect on which to place my focus. However, such preferences influence our perceptions ecosystem health and the conservation actions we think are required (or not required) in a landscape.

My interest in the topic was sparked when I first moved to Australia. I was given a similar disclaimer every time someone took me out into the bush**: “It takes some getting used to.” After walking around for a bit, they would tentatively ask, “So what do you think?” I always responded that I thought it was beautiful. I tend to prefer “messy” landscapes to “tidy” ones, and the Australian bush tends to fall into the former category.

John Forrest
John Forrest National Park in Western Australia
Fire
Burned area in Wireless Hill Park in Perth.
Atherton Tablelands
In the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland. Those are termite mounds between the trees.
Valley of the Giants
Valley of the Giants in Denmark, Western Australia

Both personally and professionally, I have found that many Australians, even those born and raised here, have aesthetic preferences that align much more with their European heritage than the realities of the Australian environment in which they live. On settlement, the intention in many places in Australia was, in fact, to create a ‘Little England’, despite the fact that the environments are wildly different. This includes Tasmania, where one of my case study regions is located (see, e.g. 1). The Australian bush generally doesn’t fit the European aesthetic. The trees are often messy, woodlands are often too open or too dense and shrubby, the landscape is often burnt, and for much of the year it can look pretty dry. Though many of our ecosystems in Australia qualify as among the most biodiverse in the world, you have to know what you’re looking at to realise that. There are exceptions, of course, and I have included some of those exceptions in this post. What really gets me thinking, however, is the way our aesthetic preferences affect the way we perceive and manage landscapes, particularly when there is a mismatch between these preferences and the dynamics of the ecosystem.

Landscapes are inherently social. Not only because most have evidence of human intervention, but also because the

Standing dead trees in the Tasmanian Midlands. Does this decline mean we should more urgently attend to issues in the landscape? Or does it send a signal to you that the system is too far gone?
Standing dead trees in the Tasmanian Midlands. Does this decline mean we should more urgently attend to issues in the landscape? Or does it send a signal to you that the system is too far gone?

way we perceive them has implications for the way we interact with them. Aesthetic preferences are an important component of that perception. For non-experts, scenic beauty serves as a surrogate for ecosystem health. If we think a natural area is beautiful, we are more likely to view it has healthy. Sometimes beauty comes from our perception that the place is “pristine” or “untouched” (though we are very bad at assessing whether or not that is the case). Downed wood from logging is one of the most influential variables in lay people’s perceptions of forest health (e.g. 2). But we aren’t entirely consistent with the way we interpret signs of human influence. We also interpret some signs of management (e.g. weeding, thinning of understorey) as “cues to care” that indicate a forest has a caretaker and is therefore healthier (3). “Messy” ecosystems, like some of those that I have shown in this post, are not only under-appreciated aesthetically, but we often have trouble translating such chaos into ecosystem function.

Landscape-scale is the focus of my research because it is the scale at which many major threats operate. The term is nebulous and defined differently by landscape artists, planners, and ecologists. However, let’s settle for now on a notion of a landscape as something that does not extend beyond our “perceptible realm”, as humans have great difficulty engaging in other scales of interest (4). Why is this important?

At this scale, landscape perception thus becomes the key process for connecting humans with ecological phenomena. Particularly relevant to this paper, aesthetic experiences evoked through perception of the landscape powerfully and regularly engage people with ecosystems. This implies that landscapes that are perceived as aesthetically pleasing are more likely to be appreciated and protected than are landscapes perceived as undistinguished or ugly, regardless of their less directly perceivable ecological importance.Aesthetic experiences may thus lead people to change the landscape in ways that may or may not be consistent with its ecological function. (4: p. 960)

Does this grassland invoke the same feelings you would have in a forest? What if you knew it was an endangered grassland?
Does this grassland invoke the same feelings you would have in a forest? What if you knew it was an endangered grassland?

For the sake of brevity, I won’t discuss all of the literature on this. I want to just focus for a moment on my thoughts and experiences, as this is the benefit to having a personal blog, after all! In my experience, there are many people who do not appreciate the biodiversity values of Australian landscapes unless they fit a particular aesthetic mode. This certainly seems to be the case where I live, in Perth, and I have heard time and time again from people who think our bush is “pretty average” *** This in spite of the Southwest corner of Western Australia being a biodiversity hotspot. Yet the key, I think, is actually in that classification itself. Biodiversity hotspots are identified as such not just by virtue of their  biodiversity values, but the fact that those values are under threat. But you won’t see WA residents coming out in droves to protect their local patch, even if they will come out to protect an iconic bit of wilderness that is much more aesthetically pleasing. Are the threats perceived as less threatening because we are underwhelmed by the bush? I don’t know, but I do wonder.

In the Tasmanian Midlands, we have a critically endangered ecological community (i.e. the Lowland Native Grasslands). Yet if you ask most Tasmanians about this region, many will tell you that it’s the agricultural wasteland between Hobart and Launceston. Though many of the landholders recognise what they have, many others perceive a landscape that is highly modified and a bit of a lost cause at this point. On a research field trip to the region, I heard one person refer to conservation in the Tasmanian Midlands as “conservation for connoisseurs”. Like a fine food or drink that may not taste great to an unrefined palate, the midlands landscape may not look like a landscape worthy of our protection and resource investment. It may just look like a region full of sheep and poppies with few “natural” values left, and there are certainly problems with ecosystem function in this landscape. But the fact is that this does not mean the biodiversity values are gone, and that many of these are actually an important part of the social and economic viability of that landscape. Does the fact that it doesn’t look like some of Tasmania’s other, more iconic landscapes make it less worthy of protection?

By Lake_Pedder_From_Mt_Eliza.jpg: JJ Harrison (http://www.noodlesnacks.com/) derivative work: Pointillist (Lake_Pedder_From_Mt_Eliza.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Scott’s Peak from Lake Pedder in Southwest Tasmania: JJ Harrison (http://www.noodlesnacks.com/) derivative work: Pointillist (Lake_Pedder_From_Mt_Eliza.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The relationship between aesthetics and biodiversity conservation policy and management is complicated, but I do think it is important. Biodiversity conservation is, and probably always will be, normative. And non-expert judgments of ecosystems often hinge on aesthetic perceptions, as these drive our connection to iconic places. This has very obvious implications. Destruction of grasslands don’t bring people out in droves; but forests do…certainly in Tasmania. It may also be more difficult to convince people to invest in these less conventionally “beautiful” landscapes, especially in times of limited resources in which the iconic landscapes like the TarkineKimberley, and the Great Barrier Reef are under threat and worth of protection as well.

My point here is not that we shouldn’t protect iconic landscapes, nor is it that we should favour messy landscapes because they are the underdog of conservation. My point is that we cannot trust that our perceptions of an ecosystem can tell us about its value. Just like many of our other sensory experiences, I think we operate under an illusion of scenic beauty and need to challenge our natural inclinations. Though I do not operate under the misguided assumption that knowledge cures all environmental ills, I do think that we should pause before jumping to conclusions about the ecological value of a landscape in the absence of knowledge about its function.

I personally love the Tasmanian Midlands landscape, but I also saw it for the first time on a research trip with knowledgable guides. Perhaps I would have felt the same way even if the circumstances were different. I don’t know. There is one thing that I do know for certain, however, and that’s that the adage to not judge a book by its cover doesn’t just apply to people. My move to Australia has taught me that things of great value can often be found in the most unassuming packages.

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Near Tunbridge Township Lagoon in the Tasmanian Midlands.

*The title of this post comes from an article that seeks to find a balance between expert-driven landscape planning that leans heavily on biophysical aspects of the landscape and perception-driven approaches that favour socio-cultural perceptions (5).

** In Western Australia, all forest seems to be referred to as “the bush” but in other places in Australia, I more often hear the words forest and woodland. Not sure if there are regional differences, but “the bush” is kind of a signature term in Australia.

*** In Australian terms “pretty average” generally means not good at all…just inoffensive I guess. For example, if you go out on a blind date and your friends say “was she hot?” and you say “she was pretty average” that basically means you weren’t attracted to her. Australians also often use it when they dislike something, but they don’t want to whinge. Example: “What do you think of the way X government programs is run?” They may say, “It was pretty average” but when probed further will offer a string of reasons why it was, in fact, below average.

Barron Falls in far north Queensland
Barron Falls in far north Queensland

1. Boyce, J. 2008. Van diemen’s land, Melbourne, Vic.: Black Inc.

2. Nassauer J.I. 1995b. Messy ecosystems, orderly frames. Landscape Journal, 14: 161-170.

3. Ribe R.G. 1991. The scenic impact of key forest attributes and long-term management alternatives for hardwood forests. In: McCormick, Larry H.; Gottschalk, Kurt W., eds. Proceedings, 8th CentralHardwood Forest Conference; 1991 March 4-6; University Park, PA. Gen. Tech. Rep. NE-148. Radnor, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station: 34-54.

4. Gobster, P. H., Nassauer, J. I., Daniel, T. C. & Fry, G. 2007. The shared landscape: What does aesthetics have to do with ecology? Landscape Ecology, 22(7), 959-972. See a copy free here.

5. Daniel T.C. 2001. Whither scenic beauty? Visual landscape quality assessment in the 21st century. Landscape and Urban Planning, 54(1): 267-282.


Individualism, Hierarchy, Solidarity, and Fatalism

I was sorting through some old emails today, and I came across a discussion from a few months ago between me and other researchers. One of them had suggested it would make an excellent blog post, but none of us ever wrote one. So here I am. I am sharing my personal thoughts on the matter, not theirs.

The discussion was prompted by a lecture given by Matthew Taylor, CEO of the Royal Society for the Arts. You can listen to it on the ABC’s* Big Ideas podcast or online here. You can also read an article he wrote on these issues here.

The basic premise of the lecture is that three sources of social power – individualism, hierarchy, and solidarity – need to be present for society to function. He also mentions fatalism as a fourth force, but this is largely set aside in the lecture. All three are fairly self-explanatory: hierarchical power comes from those who have (or think they have) authority to tell us what to do, solidarity originates from the groups to which we belong and share values, and individualistic power has its origins in our desire to survive and succeed. As he succinctly puts it: I’ll do what I’m told (hierarchy), I’ll do what everyone else is doing (solidarity), and I’ll do what I want to do (individualism).

In thinking about how to tackle “wicked problems”, Taylor suggests that we approach them from a design perspective, rather than a policy perspective, using these forces as a lens through which we view potential solutions. In other words, we can leverage on these forces in designing solutions to the complex problems that trouble society.

A quick note for context: The term “wicked problems” refers to complex policy problems that cannot be defined completely and for which most solutions are less than optimal (Rittel and Webber 1973). Many environmental problems fall under this umbrella.

These forces often operate all at once and generate friction when they meet. Taylor uses the example of climate change, which I think is an excellent one. People often firmly commit to one of three paths: individual ingenuity and technology will solve the problem, world leaders sign off on treaties to bring the world community in line, or we need to all chip in and collectively change the way we live. Fatalism, of course, is the view that it’s all made up; or if it’s not, we’re all screwed. The topic of my PhD, biodiversity, could also be similarly parsed into these four categories: individual management and conservation of the remaining patches of habitat will save us, we must join together and connect these patches across landscapes, or the government should command from on high that no actions that threaten the remaining biodiversity will be tolerated. A more fatalistic view would say that extinction has always occurred and is inevitable, thus we should stop trying to prop up some of these species just because they are cute and cuddly.

Kookaburra
This post was seriously lacking in pictures, so here’s a kookaburra thrown in for good measure. Photo: Kookaburra and frog (2), 24 May 2009 via Flickr, Richard Taylor, CC BY-SA

Quite rightly, I think, Taylor argues that we need all three to solve wicked problems, but that in today’s society they have become unbalanced. I will leave you to listen to the whole lecture if you please, rather than rehashing it all here, but it did prompt a few thoughts about how this intersects with my own research and thinking about institutions. First I’ll clarify what I mean when I say “institution”. Institutions are the rules, norms, and strategies that shape the behaviour of individuals and organisations. They can be formal, like policies, but they are often informal, like the practice of heckling the opposition in parliament. They can be abstract, like marriage or economic markets, or more concrete, like policies on paper. Think of the way you run your household. Those sets of household rules and norms (unspoken and spoken) are institutional arrangements. Institutions organise our lives and make things predictable. But in doing so they are also embedded with those four forces that Taylor discusses in his lecture.

Starting with this view, Taylor’s approach offers an interesting way to think about designing institutions. I am a firm believer in the idea that we need to tailor solutions in the problem we are trying to address. That said, calling it “the problem” is incomplete, as problems are understood from multiple perspectives. Individualism, hierarchy, and solidarity are but one way to shed light on these different perspectives. They aren’t the categories that I will be using, but they are indeed very useful ways to think about the problem. Both those who cause environmental problems and those with the capacity and/or authority to solve them often view the issue quite differently. The former may adopt an individualistic view, and the latter a hierarchical view. I suppose Taylor’s view is not an earth shattering take on the matter. In fact, it’s quite intuitive. Still, it can be a useful or enlightening way to prompt policy makers to think about solutions that align with each of these categories, rather than handing down a solution from on high (which sometimes seems the easiest option). The idea is that we get to the heart of the problem, rather than pushing down with force.

Taylor advocates for a design approach to solving wicked problems, so the real quandary for me in all of this are the embedded assumptions in the word “design”. Though my research falls under the umbrella of institutional design, I have not yet fully come to terms with what it means to design institutions. In part its a tacit implication of a god-like designer, but more so it is because the term can be a bit misleading at first glance. Although we can design policies, and identify leverage points that can change behaviour, there are limits to our ability to “design” solutions. Societies are of course complex systems, and once a solution enters into this system it can evolve into something quite different than intended. There is a range of perspectives on the limits of design.  I personally fall into the camp that says any attempt will be incomplete, but that the best you can probably do is indirectly design solutions to complex problems by finding the important leverage points. Though design is to some extent possible, the idea is just that institutions do not emerge fully formed from a design process, but rather they take on a life of their own and evolve.

I think Taylor partly addresses the limits to design when he discusses at one point how his approach to solving complex problems gets to the heart of the problem but that it is incremental, rather than in search of a “once and for all solution” which is what politicians might want. He noted that all of the different solutions are going to interact and that we need to be flexible as we make changes and adjust as we go, like moulding a clay pot.

If you listen to the lecture, I highly recommend listening all the way through the questions from the audience. These were quite revealing. It seemed several people were rather unsatisfied because they couldn’t see how his ideas would work in practice. There was a very enlightening part of the question period that illustrates this (and the notion of that institutions evolve in ways we might not have intended) very well. At one point, someone lamented the decline of traditional institutions, and suggested that liberal values are eroding those institutions that are seen as inequitable or unpalatable to modern sensibilities (e.g. church, marriage). This has become a familiar refrain in modern media.

Though it frustrates me that people adopt such a static view of social institutions, I do understand the origins of the fear. We have a very difficult time seeing innovations in the institutions we know so well because these institutions help shape our thoughts.

Iron cage
The imagery of an “iron cage” is often used to describe how institutions tend to become homogenous. Photo: Framed rebar, 15 Sept 2007 via Flickr, BY-YOUR-⌘, CC BY-SA

When familiar institutions are under threat, we also panic for a number of other reasons, besides not knowing what comes next.Though institutions like marriage evolve over time, many of these changes are slow enough that they don’t feel threatening. When a faster change emerges,  there is often a sense that we are approaching unknown territory. It can feel as though these familiar institutions will dissolve completely, and we will be left in an institutional void. What will replace the old institutions? People often seem to fear the worst, i.e. that they will be replaced by nefarious institutions that threaten civil society. Perhaps this is because we haven’t known life without these traditional institutions, and we think they are the only ones that can bind society together. Or perhaps we just cannot imagine what could replace them because our innovation is stifled by the familiar. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, I suppose.

For the record, I think a lot of the panic about erosion of our institutions is overblown. I personally don’t think institutions like marriage or the church are under threat of extinction, but they are going to evolve and change, just like most things in life. Even if we do allow liberal values to change them, however, they likely won’t be unrecognisable or completely new.  Returning to environmental problems, the green economy will not be a completely unrecognisable economy to us. Many of the same patterns of behaviour will still be there, even if the inputs and outputs change.

Design Frame
The past provides a frame for designing the future. Photo: Framed tower 8 July 2009 via Flickr, greckor, CC BY-SA

In the world of institutions, nothing is every completely new or completely traditional**. We will always have a design frame shaped by our past and our present. Institutions can be designed, but it’s difficult for us to undertake the activity of design without viewing it through a frame that has been shaped by past and current institutions.

Hypothetically, it is possible that we could decide to completely dismantle all environmental institutions to solve complex problems like climate change and biodiversity loss and decline, but it is unlikely that we will do so. And if Taylor is correct, then design is not only shaped by current and past arrangements, but it also shaped by those four forces, implicitly even if not explicitly. I may still struggle with the attachment of the word “design” to solutions for wicked problems, but I do like that he has brought sources of power to the fore, and highlighted their role not only in complex problems but also in their resolution.

* For Americans, that’s Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the ABC in America. It’s like PBS.

** This comes from the concept of bricolage. For an excellent discussion of bricolage, I highly recommend this book by Frances Cleaver:

CLEAVER, F. 2012. Development through bricolage: Rethinking institutions for natural resource management, London: Routledge.


Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal

I am going to admit something: I tear up ever time I see a commercial about Tasmanian Devils.

Source: http://www.theage.com.au/news/in-depth/devil-of-a-problem/2007/10/20/1192301096591.html

I hate to admit when I get weepy over animals because I’m used to people discounting vegetarians as ‘sappy’ people who have unrealistic, romantic notions about animals. “Nature is cruel, and vegetarians don’t want to admit it,” they will say.

Well, yes, I suppose nature is cruel, if you want to ascribe human characteristics to it. I, however, prefer to just admit that I like the natural environment and the animals that live in it. Always have. Vegetarian or not, I don’t think there’s anything illogical or overly emotional about that.

But back to the Tassie devils. If you don’t live in Australia, then you might not know that there is a devastating disease affecting the Tasmanian devil population right now called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). The disease is one of only three known cancers that is contagious, and it has affected at least 60% of the Tasmanian devil population. The disease was first discovered in 1996, and by 2009 the Australian government had declared the devil to be endangered. For more information on the disease, see the FAQ’s here.

I couldn’t find the commercial online, but here’s something similar [WARNING: Some of the images in this video of the disease are disturbing.]:

I am not sure what it is about this problem that makes me so emotional. There are a lot of animals in danger throughout the world for various reasons, and I think about those as well; but there is something about this issue that really nags at me. I know that it is only human to focus on iconic species (e.g. the bald eagle, the giant panda), particularly those that seem to represent an entire place. The Tasmanian devil fits that bill. Perhaps it is the fact that this disease is spreading so rapidly and that it doesn’t have a simple solution, unlike species extinctions that are driven almost entirely by land use change. Perhaps it is because I watched too much Looney Tunes as a kid. Whatever it is, it’s something that I can’t seem to get out of my head.

I hope to organise a fundraiser for the Tassie Devil Appeal in the next year, but in the meantime my intention with this post is simply to encourage others to learn more about the DFTD and donate if they desire. To do both, visit the official page of the Tassie Devil Appeal. Have a look around at the information, research, videos (they even have ‘home movies‘) and the images. Visit the appeal on Facebook or the program on Facebook here.

I also recommend reading the news on the topic when you can. One of the things I think that touches me about this campaign is that they have done a good job in balancing the gravity of the situation with the sense of self-efficacy. Far too many environmental campaigns focus too evil on the fire and brimstone, and lose sight of the fact that you need to provide people with a sense that their actions will be effective. The situation is very serious, but there is good news to be found in the research, e.g.

Finally, just for fun: if you want a clue as to why they are called devils, watch them eat! It also provides a clue as to why this disease spreads so easily. They do not take kindly to another devil trying to get a bite of their meal.