my musings along the way . . .

Mud on our hands

The sight of hundreds of thousands of dead fish floating belly up in a river is something most of us would never want to see.  To witness it three times in a few short weeks in what was once the continent’s greatest river system is almost too much to bear.  And its not the dead and dying fish that upset me most, its the fact that these mass kills are a sign of dead and dying rivers. Whole ecologies collapsing because of the 'rape and pillage' culture of modern industrial society.

The idea that it is natural for the Murray River to stop flowing during drought is a myth.  Its a convenient lie we tell ourselves to pretend that this is a “natural event” and there’s nothing we can do about it. But according to Dr Martin Mallen-Cooper (Adjunct Research Professor at Charles Sturt University, international expert in fish ecology and 35 yr veteran of research into the Murray-Darling) the first time the Murray is known to have stopped flowing during drought was in 1901, some 19 years after irrigation commenced in Cohuna, Victoria, in 1882, and just 12 years after the NSW Parliament recorded in 1889 the possibility that extraction for irrigation could exceed the natural flow of the river. The Murray stopped flowing again in 1915 (before a single weir had been built) and then again in 1923.

Part of the Darling River after the latest fish kill in Menindee. Photograph: Robert Gregory/AFP/Getty Images

Part of the Darling River after the latest fish kill in Menindee. Photograph: Robert Gregory/AFP/Getty Images

There is nothing “natural” about what is going on in the Murray-Darling, and neither is it “a tragedy” in the usual sense of something terrible that befalls the innocent.  This is a man-made catastrophe - and I use the term advisedly, knowing that I risk losing half my audience on this point.  But it is not women who have brought this calamity upon us - it is our dominant culture. Ipso facto it is men. And I assert that with confidence that the historical record bears this out. Any man who has a problem with that statement needs to . . . well, man up and learn some hard truths about his own culture, both past and present.

Every aspect of the development of the Murray-Darling basin for agriculture was instigated by, executed by and overseen by men.  Women were not even allowed to vote when it all started, let alone sit in parliament. And the first solitary women were not elected to the responsible State Parliaments until 1925 (NSW), 1929 (Qld), 1933 (Vic) and 1959 (SA).  Even today the representation of women in Australia’s governments is less than 20%, on corporate boards barely 30%, and in the Murray Darling Basin Authority only 36% of management roles are held by women.  It is men who historically have - and mostly still do - call the shots concerning the Murray-Darling River system - and indeed Australian society in general.

My work  Mud on our hands  is on show at the Serpentine Gallery, Lismore, 1-12 Feb 2019, and also on eBay  here .

My work Mud on our hands is on show at the Serpentine Gallery, Lismore, 1-12 Feb 2019, and also on eBay here.

So it is the dominant patriarchal violently masculine culture of western industrial society that is behind this catastrophe (from the Greek, meaning to ‘overturn’).  A rape and pillage culture that views the entire natural world as a trove of objects to be subdued, owned, controlled and exploited for its own gratification.  A culture that overturns the actual natural arrangement, where humans are just one species within a complex planetary ecology, to create an "order" that places humans on top to lord it over everything else. (And humans with penises on top to lord it over ones without).  We have built a society that first objectifies and then commodifies nature, and in the process destroys the ecosystems which underpin our existence.

He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.
— Chief Seattle, 1780-1866

One of the starkest examples I know of the total disconnect between the values and behaviour of our dominant culture and the realities of the natural world is the infamous series of tweets by Rupert Murdoch concerning the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The billionaire media mogul, one of those humans with a penis who sits atop everyone and everything else, pronounced his absurd assessment that the reef was “fully as good” as it was 50 years ago. This right at the time when 30% of the reef’s coral had died in a single bleaching event. Right at the time when the scientists charged with protecting it were publishing reports predicting the reef’s coral could all be dead within 20 years. We could laugh this all off as the delusions of a silly old man were in not for the fact that this particular old man has the power to change governments - a power he has exercised repeatedly. But the problem is not so much with this individual, the problem is the culture that crafts and shapes such an individual, and then raises him to the top. A culture that rewards violence, domination and subjugation. A culture so myopic from egoism that it can’t see that it is actively destroying its own future.

The current ecological crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin is just one of the catastrophic collapses of ecosystems occurring right now in Australia and around the world. Its not something that might happen in the future - its happening right now.  And if the environmental destruction already caused by agriculture, industry, invasive species and urbanisation isn’t enough, climate change is now directly causing the collapse of ecosystems that until now had largely escaped direct human impacts (such as the losses of kelp forests off coastal Tasmania, Gondwanan refugia in Western Australia, alpine forests in the Australian Alps,  mangroves in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and now this week the world heritage-listed forests of Tasmania’s high central plateau).

In the midst of frenzied finger-pointing over who is to blame for the Murray-Darling crisis, we mustn’t delude ourselves that it is just the greed of irrigators or governance problems that are besetting the iconic river system.  It’s too simple just to blame ‘the government’, or Cubbie Station, or the MDBA.  It is our culture, its perverse values, and the entire socio-economic system we have built on them that is to blame here. Almost all of us have drunk the cool aid, and unfortunately too many of us appear to want to keep on drinking it despite irrefutable evidence that it is killing us.

The fact is that every single person - male or female - who has ever profited from, or in any way benefited from the development of the river system bears some degree of responsibility for its current state. Every pioneer, every farmer, all their descendants, the towns and businesses they built. All the governments, all the administrators, all the corporations. Everyone all the way down to today’s city ‘consumer’ enjoying their fresh morning juice. Sure, culpability varies. But we have all been part of the exploitation of this extraordinary river system, and the resulting estruction of its natural ecology. We all have mud on our hands.


My work Mud on our hands is on show at the Serpentine Gallery, Lismore, 1-12 Feb 2019, and available on eBay here.

Patrick Smith