Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, University of Western Australia
Review: Richard Flanagan, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (Penguin Random House, 2020)
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, Richard Flanagan’s eighth novel, is one of a slew of novels one expects to emerge from the shadow of the 2019–2020 bushfire season that darkened the skies of eastern Australia for weeks on end, scorching forests from Byron Bay to Kangaroo Island.
A rolling incineration of large swathes of the continent, the sky itself seemed to have been on fire, from the uncanny pink-disk sun of smoke-choked Sydney in November and December to the apocalyptic scenes at Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve.
In Flanagan’s novel the collapse of the planet’s ecosystems happens in the background. The story itself is mainly occupied with something which must be trivial by comparison: the dying of 87-year-old Francie in a Hobart hospital.
Francie’s three children have come together to deal with the demands of the situation. While Anna and Terzo have long left Tasmania behind them (or so they thought) for high-flying careers on the mainland, Tommy has remained. Tommy is a failed artist and speaks with a stutter that appeared when a fourth child, Ronnie, died by suicide following abuse suffered at a Marist boys’ school.
The novel mainly follows Anna. A successful architect living in Sydney, she reluctantly answers Tommy’s call to return to Tasmania when their mother’s health turns for the worse. The novel traces the breaking down of all the things Anna has put up to convince herself she was no longer in that place.
What place? Not Tasmania, but the invisible, traumatic centre of family life — all the failures, evasions, dirty compromises swept under the carpet only to reappear with surprising exactitude each Christmas.
While Succession, with its ageing mogul patriarch Logan Roy, is loosely based on the Murdoch dynasty, it does not really depend on a media empire at stake. Its heart is the tawdry machinations of the infantilised children as they jockey for advantage, trying to win the game of imaginary approval driving sibling rivalry.
In The Living Sea of Waking Dreams it is a matriarch rather than a patriarch slowly, messily and unevenly passing out of the world. Yet, while Logan Roy is a monster and Francie a saint, the effect in the adult children is exactly the same.
The brilliance of Flanagan’s story and the deep power of this novel is in our witnessing of the end of the world. The death of Francie opens up a black hole in the family drawing Anna, Terzo and Tommy into its implacable singularity.
At the same time as this family’s little world is collapsing, the world itself is in its own end times. Ash rains down from the sky and one ecological catastrophe after another interrupts Anna’s social media feed. This conjunction presents a new form of what is called the pathetic fallacy, in which we project the world of our inner emotions and moods onto the natural world.
A sullen sky, a bright morning, a funereal forest — some basic animism in us takes the world to be the sounding board of our affects. It is a symptom of the Anthropocene these affinities have become planetary.
Is Flanagan’s novel an ecological novel? The luxury of choosing has now all but gone.
We no longer have to turn our minds to an ecology forcing itself into our lungs and washing up on our every shore. The novel has a dimension of allegory, but it is no longer clear which direction it is flowing.
Our missing parts
The pathetic fallacy was thought to serve the psychic needs of people by offering them a consoling mirror in the natural world, but what if its true point was to turn our subjective misery into ethical environmental action?
Certainly, the moribund Francie seems an emblem of a dying maternal nature. The ever greater efforts her children expend on keeping her alive evoke the desperate rear-guard actions to prevent this or that catastrophe.
But the novel’s most persuasive ploy is not based on the redeployment of sympathy. At regular intervals, Anna realises she is missing a body part. It begins with a missing finger. Later her knee, then a breast, an eye. Others, too, start to lose body parts.
These “vanishings”, as they come to be known, are entirely painless and seem to go almost unnoticed. It is as if, we are told, they have simply been photoshopped away.
The uncanny part is not the loss of the limb, but the fact the phenomenon is going unremarked. This is what extinction feels like. Something is gone that was once there. We are briefly confused, but then we reassemble the picture and push on.
Yet many hundreds of Australian practitioners have done exactly that, with senior health bureaucrats standing side by side with the nation’s grandstanding politicians as they impose draconian, counterproductive lockdowns.
On 5 October, The Australian’s economics editor Adam Creighton wrote: “In the first six months of the year, there were 134 fewer deaths from respiratory diseases in Australia, which includes pneumonia and influenza, and 617 additional deaths from cancer compared with the average over 2015-19, according to the ABS’s provisional mortality statistics.”
And this is just cancer.
Does the AMA accept any responsibility for this perverse outcome?
How many other avoidable killer ailments have gone undetected because the AMA has given medical cover to the politicians’ fixation on coronavirus to the criminal neglect of other deadly illnesses?
Frequently changing rules, grotesque exaggerations on the dangers of Covid-19 and poor political messaging have all sown panic and confusion in the Australian population, frightening terrified people into not seeking early consultations, screenings and treatments.
Outrageously, members of the Australian Medical Association have been front and centre of the disaster.
Australians have an unquestioning and exaggerated respect for doctors.
The sight of government medical officers stepping up to the lecterns in lockstep with the nation’s politicians has lent credibility to some of the most truly absurd dictates this now benighted nation has ever seen.
The most shameful performances have been preserved for the nation’s Chief Medical Officers, who have allowed themselves to be used for the grandstanding tactics of politicians while ignoring some of the world’s leading intellects who are questioning in the bluntest of terms the veracity of lockdowns.
The AMA now finds itself increasingly compromised, with a significant number of its members implicated in the biggest social and financial meltdown in Australian history and the implementation of dangerously misguided policies under the guise of a public health emergency.
At the same time, increasing numbers of their members are speaking out against lockdown policies and the AMA’s complicity in them.
Australians have seen the squandering of eye watering amounts of money by the government, the quintupling the national debt, the throwing millions of people on to the dole queues and truly shocking scenes of police brutality on Melbourne’s streets.
And all this destruction of the country has been accompanied by a pantomime of health bureaucrats having their moment in the sun, or more precisely the television cameras.
They’ve never felt so important.
The problem with Australia’s public service is the same as with all bureaucracies, they reward conformity while discouraging creativity and original thinking as a threat to the comfort’s of their taxpayer funded status quo.
Rather than encouraging outliers, people who “think outside the square”, those who rise to the top of health bureaucracies have inevitably got there due to their obeisance to the government agendas of the day.
Members of the Australian Medical Association have been front and centre in sowing this panic and lending plausibility to political and government agendas being shoved down the throats of the general public under the cover of Covid.
These include, most egregiously, the advancement of mining interests after Prime Minister Scott Morrison appointed his good friend, millionaire mining executive Nev Power, to head the Covid Commission.
An outspoken critic of lockdowns and a member of the Australian Medical Covid Network Dr Guy Campbell has implored the AMA to stop supporting hard lockdowns before its’ reputation is blighted, “which it will be”.
“The AMA has opened up to the non Covid 19 consequences of Government policies on Covid 19, so it begs the question then why the AMA still supports hard lockdowns?”
In an Open Letter to the AMA Dr Campbell makes the following points:
More and more countries are coming round to accepting we may have to learn to live with the virus as the health and economic costs of repeat lockdowns are too high to be justified.
As the costs start to bite widely and the pain is felt, people will look for targets to blame.
Politicians are adept at blame shifting and the medical community may suffer high reputational damage.
The AMA should pre-empt this by starting to distance itself by not supporting hard lock downs and saying publicly that they provide the medical expertise and advice, it is for governments to make and implement policy with a balance of health, social and economic policy.
Unfortunately for the AMA, the warning has come too late.
We have already entered the Era of Recrimination, as Steve Waterson at The Australian demonstrated with his prominent piece “An Epidemic of Stupidity”. He wrote: “We’ve handed control of our lives to a clown car packed with idiots who have wasted billions trying to defeat this virus. They will never admit it was all for nothing.”
In a response to Dr Campbell’s concerns the Association claimed:
“The fact is that the credibility of the AMA is not in doubt and we are not particularly concerned at this point given the broad community support for the lockdown among Victorians, with the latest poll showing that even 57% of Coalition voters support the lockdown.”
That, with all due respect, is an absurd response.
To make as your greatest defence the fact that a poorly educated population such as Australia’s can be successfully manipulated into believing a scare campaign based on false hope and inaccurate date is patently ridiculous.
The mob are notoriously fickle.
When they realise how easily they’ve surrendered their freedoms for no reason at all, when they realise how utterly and totally they’ve been misled, they will turn violent overnight.
As one of Australia’s most distinguished academics, Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University Ramesh Thakur has noted:
“A clear divide is emerging between health bureaucrats and ‘ivory tower’ modelers, on the one hand, and clinical practitioners and GPs, on the other.
“The former are the most hawkish lockdown advocates and supporters. The latter are the ones who are seeing and having to deal with the unintended, perverse and growing health and mental health consequences of lockdowns.
“It is astonishing the extent to which the theoretical scientists and health bureaucrats remain in denial about the health damage of their policies and in violation of the Hippocratic Oath.”
Do No Harm!!!! Yet while the intellectual argument for lockdowns has been lost the Australian Medical Association continues to advocate shockingly destructive policies, particularly lockdowns. Leading epidemiologists from many of the world’s most elite tertiary institutions, including Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and the Australian National University have come out condemning lockdowns as counterproductive. Yet the AMA has continued to perpetrate these discredited policies.
Even in the past week, more than 500 doctors and medical experts have petitioned the Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews to immediately cease that state’s lockdowns, raising concerns over the alarming and growing human toll caused by Victoria’s COVID-19 response.
The Covid Medical Network says that the current restrictions are unnecessary, disproportionate and must be lifted, in a statement posted to their website today.
The response to the virus will cause more deaths and result in far more negative health effects than the virus itself, it says.
A Sense of Place Magazine asked for a response from the Australian Medical Association to this call. Although clearly a subject of interest and concern to the nation’s doctors, we were advised that this was a matter for the Victorian government. We therefore put the following two questions to the Victorian Premiervia his press secretary.
1. Has Daniel Andrews seen and read the statements from the Australian Covid Medical Network calling for an end to lockdowns?
2. Does Daniel Andrews intend to alter his approach as a result of the concerns being expressed by hundreds of Australian medical professionals?
All we got back were a few weasel words “Attributable to a Victorian Government Spokesperson”.
“Every decision we’ve made since the beginning of this pandemic is based on advice from the health experts and we’ll continue to work with them to keep Victorians safe and slow the spread of this deadly virus.”
But that experience with the drolleries of government spin merchants hammers home the point: the medical profession is being used to perpetrate political and social policies inimical to the best interests of the public.
Just as mobs are notoriously fickle, so are journalists. They hunt in packs. They can turn on a dime.
And Australia’s journalists have turned, exposing the flagrant exploitation of the Covid panic by the nation’s politicians and the absurdity of the government’s policies.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison clearly hoped the Covid Panic he helped create would resurrect his battered reputation, which suffered badly thanks to his truly inept performance during last summer’s bushfire crisis.
Before Covid came along to rescue him, he was dragging himself and his party into an electoral savaging.
But why should his battered reputation be rescued by the AMA and its members?
Around the world the debate on lockdowns has already done a 180.
Professor Thakur suggests that the recently released Great Barrington Declaration, a call for an end to lockdowns from some of the world’s most distinguished epidemiologists and health professionals, should act as a clarion warning to the AMA.
“The GBD, now signed by over 200,000 people including 20,000 public health scientists and medical practitioners, shows that there is a strong strand of dissent around the world from the dominant narrative, including some extremely eminent and experienced professionals from various walks of life.”
The Declaration opens with the words: “As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection.
“Coming from both the left and right, and around the world, we have devoted our careers to protecting people.”
“Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health.“
Professor Angus Dalgliesh is a London-based oncologist with more than 30 years’ experience in cancer practice. Recently he wrote of his anguish on learning of the suicide of two colleagues resulting from the mental stress of the lockdown restrictions-induced loneliness and isolation.
“My concern about present policy led me to become one of the founding signatories on the Great Barrington Declaration,” he explains.
It is long past time when the AMA should have stopped propping up government actions which are clearly having a devastating impact on the health of millions of Australians and which are now being widely condemned by members of their own profession.
Feature Image: Bourke St. Mall is deserted in Melbourne, Australia, by Chris Putman of Zuma Press.
This piece was written and compiled by veteran Australian journalist John Stapleton. A collection of his work is being constructed here.
Some of the world’s most distinguished doctors and public health scientists have called on governments to stop the lockdowns which have had such a devastating impact on Australia.
A public statement, known as The Great Barrington Declaration after the town where it was drawn up, was authored by Dr. Martin Kulldorff, professor of medicine at Harvard University, Dr. Sunetra Gupta, professor at Oxford University and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor at Stanford University Medical School.
At the time of writing the statement, known as The Great Barrington Declaration, has been signed by more than 100,000 people:
Medical & Public Health Scientists 3 708
Medical Practitioners 6 201
General public 91 177
Aus 1 247
Canada 4 243
Germany 1 822
UK 50 978
USA 30 917
The move has received significant press coverage globally, including from the BBC and The Guardian.
Signatories include mover and shaker within the Australian medical profession Dr Guy Campbell, who has been urging the Australian Medical Association to fulfill its responsibilities and take a public stand against lockdowns.
Australia’s own Professor Ramesh Thakur of the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy, also a signatory, has had a profound impact on the debate in Australia, fulfilling his role as a public intellectual by backgrounding journalists across the political spectrum.
Unfortunately federal and state governments have ignored not just Thakur but many of the world’s leading epidemiologists, all of whom warn that lockdowns don’t work.
Instead Australian governments continue to shamelessly sow panic and confusion in the population for their own electoral advantage.
The Great Barrington Declaration in full
As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection.
Coming from both the left and right, and around the world, we have devoted our careers to protecting people.
Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health.
The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.
Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.
Fortunately, our understanding of the virus is growing.
We know that vulnerability to death from COVID-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young. Indeed, for children, COVID-19 is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza.
As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all – including the vulnerable – falls. We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity – i.e. the point at which the rate of new infections is stable – and that this can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine. Our goal should therefore be to minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity.
Adopting measures to protect the vulnerable should be the central aim of public health responses to COVID-19. By way of example, nursing homes should use staff with acquired immunity and perform frequent PCR testing of other staff and all visitors. Staff rotation should be minimized. Retired people living at home should have groceries and other essentials delivered to their home. When possible, they should meet family members outside rather than inside.
A comprehensive and detailed list of measures, including approaches to multi-generational households, can be implemented, and is well within the scope and capability of public health professionals.
Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal.
Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching.
Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open.
Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.
By Julien Louys, Griffith University and Patrick Roberts, Max Planck Institute
Thinking of Southeast Asia today may conjure up images of dense tropical rainforests teeming with iconic jungle animals such as orangutans, tigers and monkeys.
Perhaps less well known, but just as important to these ecosystems, are a host of other large-bodied creatures: the goat-like serows and gorals, three species of Asian rhino and the only species of tapir still living in the “Old World”.
Together, these creatures comprise Southeast Asia’s megafauna, second only to Africa’s in diversity. These two continental ecosystems are the last vestiges of a world largely lost – one where giants roamed the Earth. But what caused so many megafauna species to go extinct?
Several theories have suggested either humans, climate change, or both drove Southeast Asia’s megafauna to extinction. However, our newest research published today in Nature indicates it was actually the rise and fall of savannah environments that drove this extinction event.
Southeast Asia’s megafauna extinctions
Southeast Asia has lost many large mammal species over the Quaternary period, the past 2.6 million years. They included the world’s largest ever ape, Gigantopithecus, elephant-like creatures known as stegodons and large water buffaloes.
These extinctions also include one of our closest relatives, Homo erectus, and two island offshoots of the human family tree – Homo floresiensis (the “Hobbit”) and Homo luzonensis. One final human species is also recorded in the genes of Southeast Asians today: the Denisovans, who were once likely widespread throughout the region.
According to previous research, the lead antagonist in the megafauna extinction story is humans. Some have suggested the arrival of people to new lands over the past 60,000 years or more – who then overhunted and altered this new habitat – is what led to the loss of giant mammals.
Stable isotopes are the non-radioactive forms of many elements. Stable isotopes of carbon and oxygen preserved in mammal teeth record important information on what kinds of plants those animals ate, and how wet their environments were, respectively.
Stable carbon isotopes are particularly helpful in recording whether animals predominantly ate leaves and fruits in shaded forests, or grasses in more open settings. This insight lets us identify shifts in environments over time.
The fluctuating presence of forests
During the first 1.5 million years or so of the Pleistocene (the geological epoch that lasted from about 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago), the northern parts of Southeast Asia were largely forest, while the southern parts were woodlands or grasslands.
Later, from about one million years ago, forests retreated everywhere in the region and grasslands dominated. Coincident with these changes, large forest-adapted animals including Gigantopithecus and a giant panda relative disappeared from Southeast Asia’s northern parts.
Later still, around 400,000 years ago, the Southeast Asian Sunda Shelf began to submerge and climate cycles changed. Because of this, forest conditions returned.
At the same time, grassland-adapted creatures that had filled the region, including giant hyenas, stegodons, bovids and Homo erectus began to disappear – and largely went extinct by the end of the Pleistocene. The remainder were driven into the rainforests.
By the last few tens of thousands of years, we see the first evidence of stratified, closed-canopy rainforests in Southeast Asia. These have dominated the region for the past 20,000 years or so.
Rainforest-adapted species should have been advantaged by the return of the rainforests, but one interloper changed that. Homo sapiens appears to be the only species in our family tree that was able to successfully adapt to and exploit rainforest environments.
And although humans lived in Southeast Asian rainforests as early as 73,000 years ago, it was probably only in the last 10,000 years that Homo sapiens began to fundamentally alter these habitats and exploit the mammals within.
A vanishing world
Southeast Asia continues to preserve some of the most critically endangered megafauna on the planet.
Megafauna grassland specialists were the greatest loss as a result of disappearing savannahs 400,000 years ago. Today, rainforest megafauna are also at great risk of extinction.
Luckily for us, our own species’ fortunes changed for the better with the emergence of typical Southeast Asian rainforests. But we’re now the very thing threatening to destroy them forever.