Suyanti Winoto-Lewin

On my friend’s ankle

Tipping Points

On my friend’s ankle, painstakingly inked with individual pricks of a four-pointed needle, is a symbol that ecologists may recognise as a sign of our times.

A sine wave steadily swells and falls across their skin, holding two seeds in its valleys. One rests sleepily at the base of a valley. Another, one wave to the right, is climbing steadily up the rollercoaster. Bit by bit it climbs, defying gravity. Once it reaches the peak it is in danger of rolling unimpeded into the next dip.

This symbol represents the concept of alternative stable states and tipping points. Each valley represents a state in which a system can be. Even when the system is perturbed (that is, internal or external pressures cause a system to become off-balance), negative feedback loops draw it back to its stable norm. However, large changes, either sudden or occurring in persistent increments, can push a system to a tipping point, where the seed rolls down to the next valley, a new state of being which is reinforced by a new set of feedback responses.

We feel our present to be a precipice. We stand at the edge of all manner of tipping points. One push, and we could roll in any direction away from all the patterns and truths of the system we know. The picture is of chaos and off-balance, any new stable regime on the other side of the hill far away and unknown.

I imagine the seeds on my friend’s ankle racing over the hummocks, careering off the end of the line and rolling down his foot, over his toes, into the dirt beneath his feet.

Circles

When I was young, I would crouch in the soil of my mum’s garden in naarm/Melbourne, watching the buds of poppies intently. Surely, if I looked for long enough, I would catch the moment when the first petal peeped out from the green. I never did.

The continent known as Australia travels north at a steady pace of 7 centimetres per year, yet rarely do we feel the ground shift beneath our feet. It has been resolutely ploughing away from the south pole since it started to pull itself free of Antarctica, a divorce which begun about 30 million years ago. I am intrigued by the idea of a moment in which the final tear occurred between the two land masses and water rushed into the scar. That gap allowed an oceanic current to form a tight, ceaseless ring, circling round and round the south pole, unimpeded by land. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current (AAC) is the only oceanic current to circumnavigate the world. The formation of this current barred Antarctica from warmth delivered south from the equator by the East Australian Current and the Leeuwin Current, which could not pass the ceaseless whirl of the ACC. Though Antarctica sat over the south pole long before the formation of the ACC, only when this current gained momentum did it lose its forests to a permanent blanket of ice. This change, like so many of the catastrophes of geological history, happened unimaginably slowly. Even so, the glaciation of Antarctica formed part of the mass extinction event which marked the end of the Eocene epoch.

In that forested southern world over 30 million years ago, as Tasmania drifted north and ocean started to gather its furious momentum around Antarctica, I imagine the tree ferns and myrtle beeches unfurling fertile growth and sending their spores and seeds off into the wind. Some of those seeds may have caught a northward breeze, or hitched a ride on a dinosaur feather to land on fertile soil of the new island of lutruwita/Tasmania. As I walk amongst myrtle beaches and tree ferns in the Gondwanan forests of lutruwita, I imagine that I am shaded by the descendants of some of these refugees. As I breathe in the perfume of a leatherwood, I imagine its ancestors summoning Antarctic insects with their scent.

Antarctica has been trapped within a whirling ring of cold water for about 30 million years—time enough for some of the hardiest and most specialised marine life forms on our planet to evolve. A complex community of tiny animals, fungi, bacteria, protists and stranger things creep across the dark underside of the icepack or thrive within the network of briny channels etched within sea ice. Like most beings, their energy comes from the sun, alchemised from within the ice by algae.

In this frozen world, each fraction of a degree of warming makes some difference; more briny channels; less light as snow heaps up on top of the sea ice; changing growth rates of organisms. Trophic webs flail, recalibrate, adjust. But it is when the temperature crosses melting point that we humans stand to attention. Glaciers calve in loud surrender and the comfort of predictability is lost. Creatures which rely on sea ice die, while other waiting spores bloom. We watch the seed topple from a rise to a deep crevasse.

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is changing. Driven by the roar of increasing westerlies, eddies which fling warm water south through the ACC are becoming stronger. This warm water travels under the sea ice pack and melts it from below, allowing glaciers to speed up behind it. The ACC long ago condemned Antarctica to apocalypse, but now protects the unique systems which have evolved there. Recent research warns that we have reached a critical threshold of warming, a tipping point, which determines even if we stop emitting fossil fuels today, the icepack of the West Antarctic Peninsula will continue to melt at increasing speed for the next one hundred years.

Spirals (contacting)

At the time of writing, there are 686 species of plant, animal, algae and insect recognised to be at risk of extinction in my home state of Tasmania. Climatic tipping points endanger many more. Some of these species have existed since Antarctica was lost to the cold; they may call that white continent their ancestral home.

Though I don’t feel that I am ready to grieve, the work I do as an ecological consultant resembles a form of mourning. I spend my working days documenting the decline of species. The small losses; a trigger plant smaller than a fingernail growing in drainage depressions of the site of a new factory; a skink distinguished by the arrangement of scales on its head losing habitat to a road. My job is to survey areas proposed to be covered in concrete or dug up for minerals, searching for signs of these 686. What I find, I carefully identify, count, photograph and map. I may make 500 mapping points in a day marking threatened plants, hollow bearing trees and vegetation communities. My colleagues produce a map and upload the information onto Tasmania’s online database called the ‘Natural Values Atlas’. We write a report describing all the life in that area that we can. The proponent then applies for a permit to ‘take’ any threatened species we have identified within their project area. Unwilling to stand in the way of development, government generally grants these permits. Concrete is poured. With a disturbing symmetry, living beings are lost in the physical world just as they become represented in the virtual. The state database collects points on a map as if this could substitute for plants in the soil, as if to codify what we have lost is to justify losing it. The Natural Values Atlas is becoming a virtual graveyard where we may visit and grieve. Our report becomes a callous obituary.

Sometimes, the design of a project will be altered somewhat to avoid harming some critters considered significant. Often, conditions of the permit require an environmental offset – take from here, but protect over there. Offsets only make sense if a norm of destruction is assumed, so that even decreasing the possibility of destruction can be considered a positive action. Further, offsets deny individuality, functioning on the premise that individuals lumped under the same name by taxonomists, or vegetation communities considered similar by ecologists, are interchangeable. Recent legislation provides for a ‘Nature Repair Market.’ Though this offers some promise of promoting good restoration work, it is based on similar principles of interchangeability. Our ‘natural values’ have become currency; the rarer the more valuable.

The independent review of our current federal environment laws found that ‘surveillance, compliance and enforcement under the EPBC Act is ineffective.’ The legislation relies on developers self-assessing whether the impact they will have on natural values is ‘significant’ or not – only if a developer decides their impact is significant will they present it to the federal regulator for assessment. This means that the regulator does not see most of the projects which chip away at our continent’s ecosystems. When a project is referred, the odds are on the side of approval, with only 13 projects out of over 7000 refused approval between 1999 and 2022. Often a permit has conditions, but there is little to no oversight on whether these conditions are followed. In the decade from 2010-2020 the federal regulator issued $230,000 in fines for compliance breaches. By comparison, Hobart City Council expects to issue 8.3 million in parking fines in 2023-24.

I recently met with a representative of Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water (DCEEW) about offsets for a road project. She calmly informed us that ‘in perpetuity’ means ‘20 years.’ I was stunned, as she only looked about 30 herself. A standard logging cycle for eucalypts is about 80 years. It takes at least one hundred years for a eucalypt to form hollows suitable for birds or gliders to raise their young in. 20 years is less than a human generation, a mining lease, a life sentence in jail. In 20 years’ time, that offset will have done its job. It can either be destroyed or it can be used to justify another round of destruction. So we spiral inward, towards extinctions.

While the separation of Antarctica and Australia occurred (and is occurring) at a speed beyond the comprehension of human senses, and human induced climate change can be perceived within my own 26 years, many of the factors causing extinctions occur at the pace of a bulldozer or a supertrawler. Whales which depend on the sea ice-reliant Antarctic krill were almost driven to extinction long before the effects of global warming were recognised. Today, regional overfishing of Antarctic krill is adversely affecting colonies of krill-dependent species such as penguins and seabirds. Scientists worry that catch limits for krill do not take into account the effects of climate change on krill populations. Australia has lost 38 mammal species in the 250 of European colonialism which has brought feral predators, habitat loss and hunting. These are threatening processes which have barely relented their breakneck pace for the past 200 years. They continue in the form of some of the projects I work on. Each extinction, each loss of a population of a species or a of community of beings, reduces our resilience to global warming and adaptive capacity in the face of change.

The seed

As a young person peering over the precipice of the present while grieving the past, I cling to uncertainty as a tired polar bear clings to drift ice. Planetary systems are so complex we can never fully emulate them within our computer models, which seem to spit out the future like a curse. We don’t know how the ground will shift beneath us, only that it will shift. We don’t know which way the seed will roll, nor in which valley it will get trapped. For me, uncertainty provokes hope and curiosity.

Ecologists use the word resilience to describe the ability of a system to remain stable in the face of environmental perturbations. This could mean raising those hills higher, so that the seed has a little further to climb before it falls to other side. It could also mean forming that seed into a tough little bugger with a thick skin – a system with high adaptive capacity. One of the key ways of building adaptive capacity and maintaining resilience of a system is by nurturing diversity. This includes diversity in genetics as well as in human communities, and importantly, in relationships. This is the work of our generation—a turn back to nurture and stewardship. A building and rebuilding of relationships in creative ways. We also need fertile ground, places for seeds to land as continents shift, such as healthy soil, hollow bearing trees for breeding critters and unpolluted waterbodies.

So, whilst we do all we can to slow the climate crisis, we must take loss of biodiversity on home soil seriously. Even ‘single-mindedly,’ the term Tasmania’s liberal government recently used to dismiss advice against a windfarm offered by experts on migratory birds. Themselves employed by the government, these experts cited the harm it may do to critically endangered orange-bellied parrots. We are not supported by the good nature laws we need, but our government is rewriting them, and there will be opportunities for community to be involved in this process. Rather than turning the protection and rehabilitation of particular ecosystems into a commodity that becomes more valuable as each one becomes more rare, stewardship of nature needs to become standard practice, written into law rather than governed by economy. Offsetting needs to be tightly regulated, and permit conditions policed. In a political and social environment in which protecting planetary resilience is as ordinary as maintaining public infrastructure we can find a more creative form of development. We can strengthen the seed and nurture the soil.

*

As the individual pricks of a tattoo artist’s needle create an image on skin, ecologists’ mapping points paint lines and blots across the landscape. Often these draw out patterns of destruction that follow mineral riches, ever expanding roads and fertile soils. But there are also patches of growth such as where plans have changed to avoid harm to critters, where rehabilitation has occurred, or where seeds have been collected to spread to new places.

Our current system shows that we can take notice of diversity, and record it with the precision of an artist. If we add an artist’s intentionality to this, and take note of the bigger picture we are drawing, we can create a constellation of hope at the scale of our continent. With our actions and our noticing of the beings around us we can create an image that, beyond the uncertainty of tipping points, holds fertile ground where resilient seeds can grow.
 
 
 
SUYANTI WINOTO-LEWIN lives by the Derwent in lutruwita/Tasmania. She is an ecologist working in consulting and land management. Her creative work has been published in Overland Journal, and her research has been published in the Australian Journal of Botany.