Australia’s extinction crisis: Another compelling argument for ecosocialism

Larrakia people are leading the fight to save Binybara/Lee Point. Photo from Environment Centre NT.
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Cute and cuddly images of koalas are a staple image used to market Australia as a desirable travel destination. But in 2020, tourism authorities scrapped a $15 million advertising campaign co-starring the iconic marsupial alongside Kylie Minogue. Bushfires were raging across the country, leading to a catastrophic loss of habitat and plummeting koala numbers. These animals were first listed as vulnerable in 2012 as land clearing shrunk suitable habitat. The threat rating was upped to endangered ten years later with extreme weather events becoming more frequent. Without urgent action to address land clearing and climate change, koalas may be extinct by the middle of the century.

The koala is amongst a unique array of mammals found in Australia — 87% are found nowhere else on earth. The country is also the mammal extinction capital! More than 10% of all mammals known to have inhabited the continent when the colonisers arrived in 1788 are now extinct. Thirty-eight mammal species have gone forever. Others are just hanging on — 52 types of mammals are endangered or critically endangered. Reptiles are threatened too. The Christmas Island forest skink is now extinct.

The threat of extinction hangs over a third of the world’s amphibians. In 1973 the gastric brooding frog was discovered in South East Queensland. The female of this unique species swallowed its fertilised eggs. Its stomach became a brooding chamber, and it birthed its young through its mouth. Just a decade after it was discovered, the frog was declared extinct — the victim of deforestation. Three other species of frog have disappeared forever and another 26 species, including the exquisite black and yellow southern corroboree frog, are predicted to be extinct by 2040.

Birds are vital to the health of the ecosystem. They pollinate plants, spread seeds and keep pest insects in check. Their numbers — including even the common species — are also declining; more than 200 bird species are threatened with extinction.

The numbers of migratory shore birds has declined by 72% over the last three decades. Each spring, 33 species of migratory birds travel from their breeding grounds in the Arctic circle to Australia. Unrestrained expansion along the “East Asian-Australasian flyway” is destroying vital shorebird habitat. Already more than 36% of the tidal mud flats around the Yellow Sea, which is a key feeding ground, have been reclaimed for Chinese factories and other industrial developments: this habitat is shrinking by 1% every year. Climate change is predicted to further devastate numbers as suitable breeding grounds warm and more tidal mud flats along the route are lost to rising sea levels.

Drivers of extinction. A research paper published recently in the Medical Journal of Australia concludes that the steep decline of biodiversity in Australia poses “major risks to human health.” Many scientists warn that the world is currently in the throes of a sixth mass extinction. The global drivers of this trend are climate change, habitat loss and pollution.

Food security and good nutrition relies on biodiversity. Environmental degradation and climate change puts the food supply at risk. For example, three quarters of the world’s crops rely on pollinators. Healthy ecosystems are also essential to protect the water supply.
The loss of forests and other wilderness areas undermines human defences against the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases. Biodiversity is also crucial for medicines. More than half that are commercially available are based on compounds either extracted from or patterned on non-human species. A robust environment contributes to human health and wellbeing and is particularly crucial to First Nations people.

18 February 2020: Thousands protested in Melbourne, shocked by the destruction of the Black Summer bushfires. This stuffed toy protest sculpture highlighted the impact on biodiversity. Photo by Alison Thorne.

The Australian climate has warmed by an average of 1.44 degrees since records began in 1910. Since 1950, every decade has been warmer than the one before. The loss of one mammal — the Bramble Cay melomys — is directly attributed to climate change. The species was declared extinct in 2015. Known as maizub kaur mukeis in the language of the Meriam/Mir Nation, it disappeared so quickly, as seas rose to engulf its Great Barrier Reef home, that it was too late to collect an insurance population.

When ecosystems are already endangered, catastrophic events can be deadly. In the summer of 2019-20, southern and eastern Australia was ablaze for weeks in what became known as “Black Summer.” On one single day — 6 January 2020 — half the population of the 16 bird varieties endemic to Kangaroo Island were incinerated. This included a subspecies of the glossy black cockatoo and the southern emu-wren.

Invasive species are also a major extinction threat. Feral animals, particularly cats and foxes, kill many native animals and birds. The toxin in cane toads kills native reptiles, birds and mammals. The northern quoll, which was once common across the top end, has declined significantly due to poisonous introduced cane toads.

Rabbits, goats and other non-native animals brought by the colonisers compete for food and space. Gamba grass is an invasive plant playing havoc with the environment in northern Australia. Native to tropical and sub-tropical savannahs of Africa, it carries higher fuel loads than native forest and pastures, making bush fires more intense and dangerous.

The impact of resource extraction and pollution is another contributor to species loss. The Carmichael Coal Mine in central Queensland, with its industrial port at Abbott Point, has had negative impacts on the Great Barrier Reef. Before the mine came on line, there were warnings that its development risked the yakka skink and ornamental snake. The area is also one of the few remaining homes of the endangered black-throated finch. In 2021, the first official count of these rare birds since the mine opened, numbers in the immediate area have dropped from 1,026 to 185.

Capitalism is not sustainable. While Australia is a flashpoint of species extinction, the problem is global. Capitalism is irrevocably at odds with a sustainable planet, as it treats nature as something to be ruthlessly dominated and exploited. This is the cause of the biodiversity crisis unfolding around us.

A 2019 United Nations report declared the dangerous decline to be “unprecedented,” and the species extinction rate was described as “accelerating.” It found that around one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. The average abundance of native species is declining almost everywhere. The report noted that this trend is occurring in most parts of the world, with falls of at least 20% taking place, mostly since 1900.

Capitalism is a system that is based solely on the exploitation of the majority of humanity and the natural world for the benefit of a tiny minority. To maintain this dynamic, it needs to continually expand. Companies which ignore this quickly find themselves out of business. In the early period of European industrialisation, wholesale looting of non-European regions lined the pockets of aristocrats and merchants. This piracy provided the funds for early capitalism. The colossal profits generated by the industrial revolution stoked further spread of European colonisation and robbery on a global scale.

Inevitably, the brutal British invasion of Australia not only led to genocidal treatment of the people already here, it upended the entire ecology, which had been harmoniously managed by First Nations for far longer than humans have inhabited Europe.

Since the early twentieth century, capitalism has been thoroughly imperialist, expanding across the entire planet, profiting richly from militarism, genocide and the extraction of minerals and fossil fuels. This has driven the destruction of the very conditions that sustain life — forcing climate change by desolating forests and grasslands, contaminating oceans, lakes and rivers and degrading soils. All while exploiting and poisoning workers and the poor.

The very existence of this blight on the Earth is a loud call to fight for ecosocialism!

Minister for destruction? The unfolding biodiversity crisis gathering pace is hardly a secret. You don’t need to be a professional scientist to understand what’s happening. The decline in species is obvious, even to recreational birders, as once common species become rare sightings.

The Australian government produces the official State of the Environment report every five years. Prepared by independent experts, the last report released in mid-2022 made for shocking reading. The trend is poor with the environment abruptly deteriorating. The report examines 20 ecosystems and found that 19 were close to collapse!

When Tanya Plibersek, who holds the position of Environment Minister, released this report at the National Press Club, she declared: “If we continue on the trajectory we are on, the precious places, landscapes, animals and plants that we think of when we think of home, may not be here for our kids and grandkids.” Yet the government has pledged just $230 million to the threatened species program, when the report itself says at least $1.5 billion per year is needed.

Plibersek also failed when faced with a critical test. Lee Point, known to the Larrakia people as Binybara, is on the outskirts of Darwin. It is a special place to the Larrakia and also home to a small population of critically endangered gouldian finches. In the face of massive community opposition, Plibersek gave the go-ahead in June for a defence housing development.

At the time of writing this, the bulldozers on site have been stopped until 12 August by an emergency application by traditional owners to immediately halt the desecration of their cultural heritage.

Larrakia elder Tibby Quail explains her opposition to the destruction: “We are the First People — Aboriginal People. It’s our home. It’s our library. It’s our science. It’s our food source. It’s part of us and we’re part of the land.”

Given the cultural heritage considerations and the risk to the endangered gouldian finch, the defence housing project at Binybara/Lee Point should be scrapped. Instead, funds should be redirected for a mass ecologically friendly housing program. This includes making the “close the gap” slogan more than fine words by injecting funding on a mass scale into Indigenous housing.

The fight to save Binybara/Lee Point, led by the Larrakia women, is shaping up to be a real showdown with campaigners comparing the significance of the area to the now-obliterated Juukan Gorge.

Under capitalism, it is possible to win specific fights like this one. But to prevent the massive loss of biodiversity, it is necessary to rapidly stem climate change. This requires fighting for ecosocialism. Capitalism has alienated humanity from nature by privatising the land and making all things into commodities — even pollution itself! It’s beyond time to bring production into our collective hands and to end the exploitation of both labour and nature.

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