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Depp dog stunt distracts from real ecological violence



This week actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard limply apologised for bringing their undeclared dogs into Australia in breach of biosecurity laws. In the face of the increasing environmental destruction legally occurring within Australia's borders, chasing Depp and Heard comes across as a curated media stunt.

Johnny Depp and Amber HeardIf biosecurity laws are important, why has the infamous Indian company Adani been given the green light for the Carmichael coal mine which will disrupt the Great Barrier Reef, contribute to excessive carbon emissions and global warming: the biggest biosecurity threat Australia will ever face?

Recently the NSW government passed legislation exposing anti-fracking protestors to up to seven years in jail and fines of $5500. At the same time the Nepean River emits gas bubbles and riparians are outraged their livelihoods are threatened. Also, the Nothdurft family seek compensation from the Queensland Gas Company so they can leave their contaminated home because their children are sick from the leaking gas wells on their property.

Bob Brown has sought a High Court challenge against the new Tasmanian anti-protest laws in the High Court on constitutional grounds. With others, he was arrested for protesting against the destruction of native forests: the substance of what Australia's biosecurity laws intend to protect. These protestors face up to $10,000 in fines and potential imprisonment.

Like everywhere in the world, Australian environmental law is at a crossroads. On one hand government regulations that permit violence against habitat increase, and on the other, legal challenges against this destruction rise. As judges and mediators face more claims from communities and individuals about the effects of environmental destruction and the right to protect against it, governments ramp up the volume of legislation that allows such destruction.

As a lawyer, I cling to hope that courts might pull back this trend towards anti-democratic corporate tyranny and violence against the environment.

However, a central problem of our inherited legal system is the lack of a rich environmental jurisprudence which could gift judges precedents to adjudicate upon the obvious fact that humanity has obligations to its habitat: the environment.

Western legal systems are premised upon social and property rights. Property rights have become fragmented and confused: the right to enter private land and insert gas wells makes a mockery of the sanctity of private property. Intellectual property laws laugh at farmers who wish to control their practises so that genetically modified crops or pesticides don't drift onto their soil. Native Title ownership has proved easily undermined by the rights of extractive industries.


"It took 400 years for slavery to be outlawed. How long will it take for law to recognise that violence against habitat is not moral, ethical or acceptable in civilised communities?"


Western law is also obsessed with protecting against harm. This is the basis of its legitimacy and filters into almost every jurisdiction as a guiding principle. But it remains social harm: only humans matter, and anything else is property so can be treated badly.

This is reminiscent of slavery: the human was also once mere legal property. A problem in law is a problem in culture. It took 400 years for slavery to be outlawed. How long will it take for law to recognise that violence against habitat is not moral, ethical or acceptable in civilised communities?

Language and norms around the harm happening to the Earth are being revived: from the articulation of indigenous communities who already have language for the harm, to farmers living with increasing suicides. The environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht named the psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change as solastalgia, gifting a name to something many feel.

Globally, numerous communities suffer from undiagnosed traumatic disorders from living within the violence of peat fires, oil spills and poisonous dam bursts. For the rest who witness environmental destruction on screens, news reports and increasingly in their own habitats, I'm sure many feel revulsion, anger, discomfort, grief and powerlessness.

There's limited language to express these feelings: is it normal to feel such pain watching villages and rivers fill with toxicity? The scale of the destruction asks for grief, for recognition. It's abnormal to watch such destruction and feel nothing.

Australia has no excuse. It's a rich nation. It's the home of Aboriginal jurisprudence, the oldest, continuing ecological body of law. The government claims protection of Australia's unique biodiversity is so vital it invests money, time and energy into quarantine. Within its strong borders, biodiversity and livelihoods are increasingly under threat, and not from Boo and Pistol.

There will be more protestors, arrests, legal challenges and compensation claims — because ethically and legally there's something incredibly wrong, and populations from diverse demographics are starting to articulate this moral void and take action.

Human history and law is at a juncture where either it recognises that its habitat, the Earth's critical zone, is being harmed, and by extension humanity is harmed, or this violence continues.

Akin to what occurred with slavery, generations and courts of the future won't respect excuses such as jobs, the economy, and corporate interests. They'll have experienced the violence more than us, and have language, and hopefully laws, to condemn it.

The anti-protest laws applicable to those standing up against environmental violence need to be vigorously challenged. These protestors won't go down in history as deluded tree huggers, but as the noble vanguard that sought to change the law in order to stop violence. History will exonerate them.


Bronwyn LayDr Bronwyn Lay worked as a lawyer in Melbourne before moving to France where she now works as an legal consultant for international NGOs. She is the creative director of the Dirt Foundation and her book Juris Materiarum: Empires of Earth, Soil, and Dirt will be released in mid 2016.


Topic tags: Bronwyn Lay, fracking, climate change



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Existing comments

This article says everything I'd want to say about the current environmental vandalism, but says it better and more succinctly than I would have done. It makes me think there could be light at the end of the tunnel! Thanks Bronwyn

tony | 21 April 2016  

Quarantine is important and this was a good media opportunity. Similarly Dr Lay is making use of the opportunity to promote other issues.

James Grover | 21 April 2016  

The most important thing that Bronwyn said in this excellent piece is: 'Only humans matter, and anything else is property so can be treated badly.' This is so right. The anthropocentrism that characterises so much of our culture has to end. We are besotted with what Thomas Berry calls 'the pathos of the human'. Even Pope Francis agrees. In Laudato 'si he speaks of 'a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.' When will we get it into our heads that we are not the sole reason for the existence of the cosmos and that we don't exhaust its meaning? Thank you Bronwyn for saying this.

Paul Collins | 21 April 2016  

Thank you, great article.

Marcia Howard | 21 April 2016  

Brings to mind the work of Client Earth, more necessary than ever. http://www.clientearth.org/

Lea | 21 April 2016  

The writer shows a stunning misunderstanding of the importance of animal quarantine to the viability of one of this country's major industries involved with food production and export.-- quite apart for the threat to human life by imported disease such as rabies and in the modern era the animal reservoirs of retroviruses such as ebola and HIV. The arrogance of celebrities such as Depp and his partner rightfully should have been penalised far more vigorously than it was. This episode was far from a media stunt and not in the same league in this regard as this take on the situation by the writer as an opportunity to push her own tunnel vision of what environmental stewardship should target. If there is a "curated media stunt" associated with this episode, it is this article.

john frawley | 21 April 2016  

Australia’s quarantine laws exist for very good reasons and it is ingenuous to suggest otherwise. The dogs of Johnny Depp and his partner do most definitely pose a threat to Australia. Were they to bring in rabies or any other diseases to this country, I suspect there would be loud complaining at their selfishness. Btw thank you Johnny and Amber for giving our quarantine laws the best world publicity one could hope for.

jane | 21 April 2016  

Bronwyn, where does one start to try to rescue some true-risk perspective from your article. I`ll stick to two factuals: 1) India is keen to get hold of lots of Queensland coal because it is so much cleaner than its own, and will reduce global warming rather than increasing it; 2) fracking will also produce clean natural gas that is also cleaner than most hydrocarbons and will reduce net CO2 emissions ; 3) peat has started burning in Tasmania because although we knew it was drying out outn Greenies would not allow rational management of the tress growing on it, and they were bound to explode in hot weather and related thunder storms. This avoidable peat fire cannot be put out and will liberate huge amounts of CO2. You, and the Greenie-Left band-wagon seem alarmed at most of the wrong things.

Eugene | 21 April 2016  

What a wonderful expose of all the horrors being perpetrated on our environment. I guess you've covered it (sorry haven't time to read all now but will later) but the anti-huggers somehow think that it's not where THEY live, only where us saps bleed. As it were

Ariel Marguin | 21 April 2016  

Thank you Bronwyn for an excellent and well argued piece. As someone who witnessed the recent fires in Tasmania I feel the need to correct Eugene. The fires in the north west of Tasmania would go at a fair rate until they hit a plantation and then they would take off and gain in intensity. The fires in Tasmania (where I live) had nothing to do with 'greenies' and in fact but for the work of 'greenies' in protecting old growth forests the fires would have been even more severe. And with new plantations being grown which only invite fires the future of the north west is not looking good.

Tom | 21 April 2016  

Thank you for this article. The celebrity dog story was a beat up and should never have gotten that far. This article says much more - it's about our home and our co-existence with other species. Wanton destruction is not something that will guarantee our future. Please keep sharing your wisdom and compassion for our world.

Max | 23 April 2016  

working through the thicket of complexity on green issues I always return to Schweitzer's 'reverence for life' - a bit odd from this old atheist eh ?

bruce lay | 12 July 2016  

So Dr Lay thinks it's ok to let diseases like rabies into Australia? How she can see a connection between our very necessary quarantine laws and the management of our environment is beyond me.

Brian Finlayson | 12 July 2016  

I was told recently by a passenger on a large ship calling into Cairns where all were disembarked. Including at least 1 lady who came off ship with her 'little dog' so he could stretch his legs and do his business on the foreshores as he doesnt get that opportunity on the ship. Who is watching these environmental threats in our ports?

Cath | 13 July 2016  

Great article Bronwyn, I took solastalgia to the Land and Environment Court NSW as "loss of sense of place" and it was upheld as a reason for rejecting the expansion of the Warkworth coal mine. The NSW Government then changed the law so that social impacts could not override economic consideration in EIS. The immorality and the violence against people and the Earth continues, yet many still see celebrity trivia as the only game in town.

Glenn Albrecht | 22 July 2016  

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