Leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett at Hay Festival Winter Weekend

Leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett at Hay Festival Winter Weekend

Everyone’s home is threatened by climate change, even the silver brumby’s

I was asked, when speaking at the Hay-on-Wye winter festival, to identify a book that meant home for me. What immediately came to mind was the Australian children’s classic The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell. It is the story of a wild stallion running around the Snowy Mountains. Most of the world would be closer to calling them hills, the only area of Australia with alpine ski resorts – though possibly not for long, with climate change at risk of making them unviable.

It’s a heavily anthropomorphising book – the it opens with the birth of its hero Thowra (Storm) and his mother Bel Bel has very human thoughts about his future, and very human “conversations” with other horses, and in later books other animals, but it is nevertheless a book that displays a deep understanding for and love of the Australian bush, and the unique and fragile mountain environment. Humans are the enemy, of horse and native animals alike.

Yet there’s something very telling about this book, that its heroes and heroines are the introduced animals – in scientific terms the feral animals, species run wild in an environment in which they have no natural predator and no natural place among the marsupial communities of Australia. And yet this was the “bush” I was brought up with – a bush in which The Man From Snowy River, you might have seen the movie, celebrated human’s defeat of nature.

The Silver Brumby had quite a bit to do with my studying agricultural science as a 17-year-old from a family in which no one had ever been to university before to direct me otherwise, and hence responsible for my understanding of the way in which Australian agriculture is not farming its soils but mining them – something that recent work on the American prairie soils has shown to be as true there as in Australia.

It’s in a way ironic that I should pick an Australian nature book, for this nation is one of the worst offenders in one of the great threats to the nature of the whole world, of course climate change. It’s emissions per head are worse than America’s, it has recently elected a climate change denying prime minister who’s taken power with the avowed intention of dismantling the very limited “green” taxes brought in by the previous government.

The stories of the Silver Brumby and the Man From Snowy River and their ilk are among Australia’s favourite childhood reading (at least they were when I was a child), but while this country has an image of itself as a “bush” culture, in fact this is one of the most urbanised – suburbanised – societies in the world. The people cling in sprawling cities that hug the coasts, the vast inland is almost empty. And they are not grounded or comfortably based in this land – Tim Flannery, now Australia’s foremost scientific intellectual, when I interviewed him as a young journalist many years ago, said he thought the sustainable “carrying capacity” of Australia was three to five million people, there are now 22 million.

So I grew up on these stories, while living in suburban culture where water-guzzling lawns, traffic jams and shopping were the daily reality. I learnt to ride a horse – pretty badly – only as a result of a handful of farm holidays specially organised by my parents.

That reflects perhaps the broader failure of the human race to grasp the fragility of our place as human beings in the global eco-system that’s now entered the Anthropocene. I talk often about how we in Britain have to get back to one-planet living, while we are now every year, collectively, using the resources of more than three planets. Most of us will accept that at some level – the science, the most scrutinised science in history, is overwhelming.

And you might also say that the Earth is cooperating in this – from the dreadful Philippines typhoon, to the Japanese tsunami, to those who follow the Financial Times closely, the recent massive floods in Thailand that nearly brought the automotive industry to its knees, with a sudden – and for lots of MBA graduates apparently shocking – understanding that a complex global, just-in-time supply chain is horribly vulnerable to natural disruptions.

Even in Australia, there’s been a shift of mood. Tony Abbott is remarkably unpopular for a new prime minister, and after he rode in a short patch of “flooding rains”, much of Australia has again plunged into drought. And as one farmer told the Sydney Morning Herald – we usually get bigger gaps between the droughts than this.

Change is seldom linear or steady. It comes in great leaps and jerks. On climate change action, we need one of those soon. I’m confident we can get it. And if we do, a silver brumby running through the snow will to future generations of Australian children seem natural and understandable, even if the ecological position of this feral species still has to be carefully managed.