About Nauru your petitioner humbly prays

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Refugee child ‘Roze’ on Nauru, provided by World Vision Australia

I could count on the toes of my feet the number of petitions I have signed in this life, but I could not refuse the Kids off Nauru campaign. More than 100 human rights groups, churches, charities and organisations, including World Vision, Amnesty International and the Australian Lawyers Alliance are behind Kids off Nauru.

The e-petition to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten leaves no room for negotiation. Children in detention on Nauru, about 40 of who were born on the island, have witnessed lip stitching, self-immolation and other suicide attempts. Many have developed traumatic withdrawal syndrome, characterised by resigning from all activities that support a normal life. The Australian Medical Association has called for immediate action to assure the health and wellbeing of those on Nauru.

As one of the NGOs involved in the campaign, Plan International says, “This can’t continue, not on our watch”.

“We’ve seen report after report of children who are in such despair, for whom life in detention is so miserable, that they have withdrawn socially, stopped eating and even attempted suicide,” Plan International said. “In August a 12-year-old girl tried to set herself on fire.”

The petitioners want all 120* children and their families off Nauru by November 20, 2018. The date is not random – it is Universal Children’s Day.

You all know this shameful story, where the Australian Government re-invented an offshore processing solution for people who’d mostly arrived without permission by boat, seeking refuge in the big open country they had heard was egalitarian and tolerant.

Nauru, a small island north-east of PNG and the Solomon Islands, was once known for extracting and selling phosphate for fertiliser. The resource is exhausted, so the Nauruan government could hardly refuse the lucrative offer from the Australian Government.

It’s difficult to get an accurate count* of children on Nauru, quoted variously as between 106 and 126. Meanwhile the official number from the Australian Government is 22. But wait, the fine print refers only to children in the Nauru Regional Processing Centre (Australia’s responsibility). Other refugee children are accommodated in centres run by the Nauruan Government. The latter is not at all transparent about the welfare of refugee children and their parents. A New Zealand TV reporter was detained briefly when reporting from the Pacific Forum because she went ‘off reservation’ to talk to refugees “without going through proper channels”.

I’d go and see for myself but they want $8,000 for a journalist visa.

Anglican Bishop Phillip Huggins wrote to then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton seeking clarification of numbers published on the department’s website.

The (eventual) reply from Mr Dutton and Huggins’s interpretation of the answers is worth reading to get a perspective.

Bishop Huggins concluded that the harsh reality is that there were (in August 2018), 120 refugee children in Nauru (some have been resettled in the last month). Some are being assessed for resettlement in America; some may eventually be resettled in New Zealand.

Let’s ask the obvious question: New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern and her coalition partner Winston Peters have offered to take up to 150 refugees from Nauru. Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull rejected the offer to resettle the Nauru refugees, making the woolly argument that this would only make New Zealand attractive to people smugglers. It may surprise readers to know that the New Zealand offer to resettle refugees goes back to the administration of former PM John Key (2008-2016).

The transfer of asylum seekers to offshore processing centres in the Pacific was first introduced by the Howard (Coalition) Government in 2001.Here’s an edited summary of what followed.

Seven months after Kevin Rudd was sworn in as Prime Minister in 2008, the last remaining asylum seekers on Nauru were transferred to Australia, ending the Howard Government’s controversial ‘Pacific Solution’.

In July 2010, then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard revealed that the Government had begun having discussions about establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region. Importantly, only 25 asylum seekers had travelled by boat to Australia to seek asylum in the 2007–08 financial year. By the time Gillard made her announcement in July 2010, more than 5,000 people had come by boat to Australia to seek asylum.

Gillard acknowledged that the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia was ‘very, very minor’ but she identified a number of reasons why the processing of asylum seekers in other countries was considered necessary, including:

  • to remove the financial incentive for the people smugglers to send boats to Australia;
  • to ensure that those arriving by boat do not get an unfair advantage over others;
  • to prevent people embarking on a voyage across dangerous seas with the ever present risk of death;
  • to prevent overcrowding in detention facilities in Australia.

Though it took another two years to secure arrangements, people began to be transferred to Nauru and PNG in the last quarter of 2012.

Two months before the 2013 federal election amidst growing support for the Opposition’s tougher border protection policies, newly appointed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia had entered into a Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG. Under the arrangement, all (not just some) asylum seekers who arrived by boat would be transferred to PNG for processing and settlement in PNG and in any other participating regional State. Mr Rudd subsequently made a similar arrangement with Nauru.

Mr Rudd now says this was meant to be a temporary arrangement.

So he we are with a humanitarian crisis on our back door and as per usual, those clinging to slender majorities do not want to make brave, decent decisions which might cost them their seat at the next election.

Petitions are a form of protest known to exert moral authority; that is, they have no legal force. But the sheer weight of numbers can force social change. One example was the millions of signatures on a petition calling for the release of Nelson Mandela.

Before e-petitions and ‘clicktivism’ became the norm, government clerks charged with the receipt and storage of paper petitions had a job for life.

The Australian government receives on average 120 petitions a year, a large proportion of which are e-petitions. Activist group, change.org, (https://www.change.org), the biggest generator of e-petitions, has 50 million subscribers world-wide.

Nigel Gladstone, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, says 32,728 Australian petitions were started on the change.org website since 2014. More than 3.5 million people signed their name to support campaigns such as reduced parking fees at NSW hospitals and marriage equality.

Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Sydney, Ariadne Vromen and Professor Darren Halpin of ANU collected data from change.org to study online petitions over a four-year period.

“This form of political engagement is both mainstream and important,” Professor Vromen told the SMH. “In Australia Get-up were really the pioneers of using online petitions and that was a bit of a shock to the system, but politicians quickly became cynical.

“Change.org is different because citizens can start their own thing, so it is different to an advocacy group starting something.”

So will the advocacy groups behind Kids off Nauru succeed in their mission to force the government to act by November 20? Let’s revisit this in a couple of months’ time.

#kidsoffnauru

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Multiculturalism under siege

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Monument to Multiculturalism in Toronto, a sculpture by Francesco Perilli. Photo by Shaun Merritt https://flic.kr/p/5d7sTp

My plan to write something cuddly and wholesome about Multiculturalism Month in Queensland was derailed somewhat by the egregious maiden speech of crossbench Senator Fraser Anning.

One of our newest politicians, he chose his maiden speech to call for a return to the White Australia policy, suggesting that a plebiscite be held to ask Australians if they want ‘wholesale non-English speaking immigrants from the Third World and, in particular, whether they want any Muslims’.

Politicians who make incendiary speeches are often misquoted, so this is exactly what Senator Anning had to say about Muslims.

“A majority of Muslims in Australia of working age do not work and live on welfare. Muslims in New South Wales and Victoria are three times more likely than other groups to be convicted of crimes. We have black African Muslim gangs terrorising Melbourne. We have ISIS-sympathising Muslims trying to go overseas to fight for ISIS and, while all Muslims are not terrorists, certainly all terrorists these days are Muslims. So why would anyone want to bring more of them here?”

He said a lot of other things too; about countering the growing threat of China both outside and within Australia; about building coal-fired power stations to return us to the cheapest power in the world, and about (ahem) restoring personal freedoms and free speech.

The thing that outraged many, however, was his use of the words, ‘the final solution’, made infamous by the Nazis in WWII. Senator Anning seems unrepentant, amid claims the speech was deliberately structured to be controversial and raise his profile. He claims the use of the term “final solution” (the Nazi regime’s euphemism for exterminating Jewish people), was “inadvertent”. But he has not backed down, saying the outrage is coming solely from political opponents.

The counterpoint to Senator Anning’s divisive speech was a plea for consensus by the Member for Chifley, Hon Ed Husic. His response in Parliament described the experiences of his Bosnian parents, who came to Australia in the 1960s.

“My old man worked on the Snowy Mountains scheme. Dad worked with his hands and Mum stayed home to make sure we had a family that could take advantage of all the great things in this country.

“Like many kids of migrants, I carry a debt – a debt of gratitude to this country that we were able to achieve this. I went to university. I could count on one hand the numbers of folks in my family or from my Dad’s generation that got to do that. Now I get to serve in this place (Parliament) and regardless of my faith, my commitment to the community is what I’m judged on.”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten weighed in, saying  “…As leaders, as representatives of the Australian people, as servants of diverse communities in a great multicultural nation, we cannot stay silent in the face of racism.”

Even former MP John Howard condemned the tone of Anning’s speech, which is a bit rich coming from the bloke who introduced the One Australia policy in 1988, which called for an end to multiculturalism (and opposed a treaty with Aboriginal Australians).

Anning might not have read the spray in the Tweed Daily News from Australian-born journalist Charis Chong, who said that although she drinks all kinds of Australian beer and has a Weber in her backyard, “I’ll never be Australian enough”.

She talks of her negative experiences as an Asian Australia, but also her true friendships with people who don’t talk about assimilation – “they are just nice, decent people who appreciate each individual person for who they are.

“The problem with Senator Anning’s comments is that they seek to exclude people from ever being good enough to be ‘Australian’ simply because they don’t look ‘white’ or want to practice a certain religion.”

Katharine Murphy writing for The Guardian warned that the Anning speech was a sign that Australia was being caught up in global nationalist debates.

What we are witnessing in national politics is the latest manifestation of Australia’s cultural cringe. Far right political operatives, and the media voices prepared to give them succour, are importing the nationalist debates that have sprung up in the shadow of the global financial crisis.”

Murphy is correct in saying that debates about race, multiculturalism, sovereignty and immigration have flared up elsewhere because of deep resentments felt by the losers of globalisation. While Australia was not as deeply affected by the GFC, the ‘outrage consciousness’ that exists elsewhere is being imported, validated and projected here, she said.

The 2016 Census revealed a lot about the ethnic makeup of Australia. Nearly half (49%) of Australians had either been born overseas (first generation Australian) or one or both of their parents had been born overseas (second generation Australians). Of the 6.16 million overseas-born persons, nearly one in five (18%) had arrived since the start of 2012. While England and New Zealand were still the next most common countries of birth, the proportion of those born overseas who were born in China and India has increased to 8.3% and 7.4% respectively. Malaysia now appears in the top 10 countries of birth (replacing Scotland) and represents 0.6% of the Australian population. While 52.1% of Australians identify as Christians, those who listed Islam as their religion numbered 620,200 or 2.6% of the population.

One might imagine that immigrants and refugees settling in regional and rural Australia would receive a chilly reception from the stereotypical ‘rednecks’ of the bush. But Prof. Collins wrote in The Conversation that a research project on immigrants living in regional Australia a decade ago dispelled this myth, with 80% of respondents reporting a warm welcome.

“Our new research confirmed this finding, with 68% of the refugees surveyed in Queensland overall – and 81% in Toowoomba – reporting it was ‘very easy’ or ‘easy’ to make friends in Australia.”

Meanwhile, people who believe in embracing multiculturalism continue to celebrate its existence, which in Queensland is the month of August.

If you live in regional Queensland and support cultural diversity, you could look out for BEMAC’s Culture Train. (BEMAC is Queensland’s leading multicultural arts producer, presenter and artistic development organisation).The train will be making 15 whistle stops on a tour that starts today. A group of five culturally diverse musicians will present free concerts and workshops starting at Dunwich (Stradbroke Island), then on to Dalby, Chinchilla, Roma, Charleville, Longreach, Barcaldine, Emerald, Rockhampton, Gladstone, Childers, Cherbourg, Toowoomba, Ipswich and finishing at the Brisbane Multicultural Centre on August 31. The Culture Train 2018 ensemble is: Sarah Calderwood: Celtic singer-songwriter, flute & whistle player, Chong Ali: Vietnamese rapper and emcee, Marcelo Rosciano: Brazilian percussionist, Ben Kashi: Persian dulcimer and percussionist and Gertrude Benjamin: Torres-Strait Islander folk and soul singer.

Sarah, who is also musical director, said the group would be performing shows which combine songs from the group’s vastly different cultures backgrounds, with individuals performing solo work as well.

“The five of us are thrilled to not only celebrate this diversity through music and storytelling,” she told FOMM, “but to promote inclusion and bring communities together to collectively celebrate multiculturalism in regional, rural and remote communities.”

 

 

 

Queensland ramps up renewable energy

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Renewable energy – solar lights at Charters Towers-

For some time I’d been harbouring a suspicion that Queensland was a laggard when it came to renewable energy. That may have been the case in the past – wind and solar generation increased only 3% between 2006 and 2016. But a recent national survey by the Clean Energy Council found that eight of the country’s top 10 domestic solar panel users are in Queensland. Bundaberg, which has some 11,060 households with solar panel installations, tops the list.

The Clean Energy Australia report (2018) said that in 2017, more than 1100 MW of rooftop solar power capacity was installed Australia-wide. This has happened despite the winding back of once-attractive subsidies to install solar, as well as a reduction in the amounts paid for selling energy back to the grid.

At the end of 2017, more than 50 large-scale wind and solar projects were under construction or scheduled to start in the near future. This represents more than 5,300 MW of new generating capacity, $10 billion in investment and 5,750 new direct jobs. Queensland’s share of this new infrastructure will generate 2121 MW, a $4 billion investment creating 3,196 jobs. If all of the proposed projects come to pass, they will generate more than 15% of Queensland’s present day electricity needs.

While some regional Queensland towns (Emerald, Charters Towers, Hughenden), are building solar farms, my observations are that the domestic and business use of solar is hit and miss. We visited shopping centres in regional towns that have gone to the trouble of providing shaded car parks for their customers. These shelters usually comprised heavy duty shade cloth over steel frames. If they’d spent more money, they could have their very own solar farm, protecting shoppers from the punishing summer sun and generating their own electricity.

The lights upon the hill

While it may seem relatively inconsequential, outback Councils and mining companies have adopted outdoor solar lighting, the latter to light pathways within mining villages. Charters Towers Council has spent a lot of money dressing up the town’s main attraction (Tower Hill), with picnic tables and a walkway made from recycled plastic leading to the 29 concrete bunkers which were used to store ammunition during WWII. At night, LED solar lights positioned every 20m or so light the steep path to the summit for the nightly amphitheatre show, Ghosts after Dark, a documentary about the town’s history and legends.

Renewable energy’s been on my mind since returning from 39 nights staying in caravan parks, recreation grounds, farm stays and free camps. The latter attract grey nomads and their generators. We were camped somewhere off grid for a few days, so I put our 120W portable solar panel out in the sun, as you do, while my neighbour primed his generator. It wasn’t that intrusive and he did shut it off at dusk, but when there are 90 vans on one large site…

Meanwhile, after three days off grid, our 12-volt lights and marine fan were still working; we charged our phones and my trusty laptop and all I had to do was to keep moving the panel as the sun passed over.

Until recently, we also had a portable solar light, a simple gooseneck lamp, very handy as an extra light when cooking. It has/had a pop-out panel you can hold in the palm of your hand. Alas, I left it sitting on a tree branch (charging), at the last or second-last camp site. We spent a fruitless hour or so traversing Townsville in search of an Ikea (from whence the light was purchased, moons ago). Alas, lackaday, it turns out there is no Ikea in Townsville. The GPS navigated us to the outer industrial suburbs to a warehouse which acts as a distribution depot for online orders (from outlets which so far have no real estate in Townsville).

Just because you have switched to renewable energy, that’s no reason to forget about maintenance. We have eight panels on the roof and a solar hot water system which pre-dates the panels. When the technician came to give the system its 10-year check-up, the part of the system which converts the sun into energy had given up the ghost some indeterminate time before. Which meant our hot water was being delivered via a 240v booster switch. This partially explained why (a) the water was sometimes not so hot and (b) the disparity in our power bill. So this week we hired a plumber who installed two new solar panels to service the hot water system. This cost a bit, but we are confident of once more returning to the world of smaller power bills.

Which brings us to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s recommendation to wind down the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme by 2021.There are varying opinions as to whether that is a good or bad thing.

Lucy Percival of the Grattan Institute says the ACCC concluded that offering subsidies for household solar was a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided policy.

“Solar schemes were too generous, unfairly disadvantaged lower-income households, and failed to adjust to the changing economics of household solar.”

The SRES subsidy did not reduce as the cost of solar installation fell. So a larger proportion of solar installation was paid for by the scheme, as prices fell (from around $18,000 for a 1.5kW system in 2007 to around $5,000 for a 3kW system today).

In addition, premium feed-in tariffs were well above what generators were paid for their electricity production. Historically, solar feed-in tariffs paid households between 16c and 60c per kilowatt-hour, while wholesale prices were less than 5c per kWh.

Not everyone agrees that the ACCC got this right. Joseph Scales, national director of Solar Citizens said that while much of the ACCC’s report was ‘spot on’, the suggestion to slash the small-scale (subsidy) made zero sense.

“Solar is the best way to guarantee energy bill savings. Our governments should be helping more people to take the power back from the big power companies by installing cost-cutting solar.”

By way of example, New South Wales solar owners saved all of the state’s energy consumers $2.2 billion in just one year.

Meanwhile, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) will meet today to decide whether to support the Federal Government’s controversial National Energy Guarantee.

Solar Citizens and other pro-renewable lobby groups have three main objections to what they see as flawed, old-school energy policy:

  • The NEG will allow energy retailers to continue to benefit from energy fed back into the grid from customers’ rooftop solar systems (given that many consumers are paid around 11c per Kw, while retailers charge upwards of 32c per Kw) ;
  • The NEG does not provide incentives for renewable energy but instead props up ageing and inefficient coal plants;
  • The renewable energy target for 2030 is now so low it will be covered by schemes already planned or under construction.

It’s hard to see the NEG fixing the number one issue – the rising cost of electricity. Meanwhile, some three million Australian households have taken the matter into their own hands, installing solar panels. Now we just have to convert the two thirds of households who don’t have solar that it is the right way to go.

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Confessions of a Tree Hugger

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Bob the Tree Hugger, somewhere in Queensland

The derogatory label ‘tree hugger’ is worn with pride by environmental guerrillas, the ones who chain themselves to trees in a bid to prevent them being chopped down.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines tree hugger as ‘someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats’. Yes, well, that’s objective.

Although chaining yourself to a tree as a form of conservation protest is more often associated with North America, you’ll find many such tree hugger examples in Australia. In Tasmania’s Tarkine forest, conservationists protested logging by direct action. Suburban tree hugger types arc up when councils decide to fell established trees for public liability or other specious reasons.

Trees, as the occasional crossword question will remind us, are the largest plants in the world. They not only provide animals and humans with shade and shelter, they pump out oxygen, suck up carbon, stabilise the soil and provide homes for native birds and animals. Trees are great for children to climb and big ones often support tree houses and swings. And as anyone who lives in a timber house could attest, once removed from the landscape, trees make permanent shelters for humans. Moreover, generations of young lovers have carved their initials in tree trunks. The latter is not world’s best practice, though, as damaging a tree’s skin (bark) can start a deterioration of the plant’s health.

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Tree hugger paradise – ancient Ooline forest

On our six-week outback trip last month we visited one of the few remaining stands of Ooline forest in Tregole National Park, which only achieved that status in 1995. Tregole’s Ooline forest survives in semi-arid, south-western Queensland, between two of the State’s natural regions, the Brigalow belt and the Mulga lands. As the National Parks website tells us, “the park protects a small but pure stand of ooline Cadellia pentastylis, an attractive dry rainforest tree dating back to the Ice Age”.

Ooline has been extensively cleared and is now uncommon and considered vulnerable to extinction.

In Queensland, a very large northern state of Australia, trees have been under siege and remain endangered by forestry activities and by clearing for agriculture or mining. Only 9% of Queensland is forested, compared to 16% of Australia overall.

​The ABC did a fact checking exercise during the last state election, to verify the claim that Queensland was clearing more timber than Brazil.

Some 395,000 hectares of regrowth and old growth vegetation was cleared in 2015-16, a 33% increase over the previous year. Queensland accounts for more than half of Australia’s total losses of native forests. This dire statistic generated critical editorials in international media.

The ABC fact checkers vindicated the claim by the Queensland Greens that more than one million hectares of native bush and forest was cleared in Queensland over four years.

“Land clearing in Queensland is now on par with Brazil,” the Greens said.

Unhappily, the rate of land clearing tends to increase under the management of conservative governments (voted in primarily by farmers, miners and the businesses that profit from agricultural and mining commerce).  One of the infamous innovations of land clearing was the ‘ball and chain’ method, involving two bulldozers, a giant steel ball and a ship’s anchor chain. The chain was secured between two bulldozers (with a third bulldozer often following on behind to add weight to dislodge larger trees).

The felled trees were swept up into a giant pile and left to dry for up to a year before being torched (in itself an ecological disaster).

Although the use of a five-tonne steel ball has largely been discontinued, many landowners still engage contractors to use the dozer and chain method to clear light scrub and forest. A good contractor can clear 40 hectares a day.

Fortunately, Labor governments tend to block or reverse the worst of the land clearing excesses. Queensland’s Palaszczuk government passed new legislation in May limiting broad scale land clearing. Farmers demonstrated outside Queensland parliament as the bill was being debated.

Meanwhile, the deforestation of Indonesia, South America and other continents and countries continues unabated. The World Resources Institute says that more than 80% of the Earth’s natural forests already have been destroyed, with clearing continuing at the rate of 20,000 hectares per day.

Tane Mahuta and the risk of dieback

If you have visited New Zealand and saw the country’s oldest and largest Kauri, Tane Mahuta, you were indeed fortunate. Two thousand year old Tane Mahuta, held sacred by the Maori, is at risk of infection from Kauri dieback, a disease which has already picked off many old Kauris in the surrounding forest in Northland and elsewhere in NZ.

New Zealand’s once massive Kauri forests were plundered over the centuries for ships’ masts, houses and other buildings and simply to clear the land for agriculture. In the 1700s, Kauri covered 1.2 billion hectares. Today the coverage is less than 4,000 hectares.

Meanwhile in Maleny, Australia, we ‘small c’ conservationists nurture the native trees on our half acre block, which remains well wooded. We rid the bottom of the block of every bad weed known to man or woman, circa 2002, planted several natives and allowed the area to regenerate as native forest.

The downside is a straggly line of giant camphor laurel trees which straddle the boundary between our block and a neighbour. We felled the biggest and oldest camphor as it was too close to the house, its root system undermining the driveway, massive limbs swaying about during storms. We felt bad about hiring someone to remove that huge old weed tree, imagining its psychic pain as chainsaws did their fatal work.

Did you know the term ‘tree hugger’ can also mean someone who physically hugs a tree to become more at one with nature?

“Good morning, tree.”

“Morning, Elspeth, coffee smells good. Ahem, I don’t suppose I could have a glass of water?”

BBC culture writer Lindsay Baker found that the recent emergence of ‘tree literature’ is no new thing, quoting the likes of William Wordsworth (It Was An April Morn), John Clare (The Fallen Elm) and German poet and philosopher Herman Hesse (Trees: Reflections and Poems).

“Trees are sanctuaries,” wrote Hesse. “When we have learned to listen to trees… that is home.”

New age and literary tree-isms aside, ‘small c’ conservationists can do their bit to save trees without necessarily chaining themselves to bulldozers or a Wollemi Pine (critically endangered, according to the Canberra Arboretum, which hosts 31 endangered species).

In 2014, we set ourselves a carbon-neutral cap after towing a caravan 15,000 kms around Australia. Our carbon footprint for this epic journey was 4.77 tonnes of CO2, based on driving 15,000 kms at an average 14.5 litres per 100 kilometres. This translated to $24.15 per tonne or $115.95. We donated this amount to Barung Landcare, where we often purchase trees, plants and ferns from their native nursery.

Our 2018 outback trip (6,000 kms), which ended on Monday, should cost us around $50 as our version of the ‘carbon tax’. Or we could just wander around the block, hugging trees (hose in hand).

Recommended reading: The Bush – Don Watson, Barkskins – Annie Proulx, The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben.

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