A conversation with Pete and Anna Hay
It's been a dozen years or so since I first met poet and environmentalist Pete Hay. Then, in the mid-nineties, at a time when Tasmania's writing community was steadily unravelling in response to a series of events including a tussle for control of the Salamanca Writers' Festival, he served as president of the Tasmanian Writers' Union. In the absence of a treasurer I put my hand up, and in the process came to know him a little better. Pete only served as president for one term, declining at the subsequent Annual General Meeting to stand for re-election. He'd taken on the president's role, he explained, in an attempt to heal the divisions tearing at the local writing community. Since he'd failed, he judged his presidency likewise to be a failure.
In public dealings with Pete Hay, one is impressed by his intelligence, integrity and modesty. Richard Flanagan's appraisal of Hay is of an unusual figure 'combining in the one person, sometimes in the one piece, the poet, the polemicist, the activist and the essayist'. It's no simple facility for words that's earned Hay the reverence and respect with which he's held, it's the integrity attached to his use of language. The words to describe his mental landscape are knocked around in conversation so often that they emerge in his writing as finely etched gems, burnished with a rare generosity.
Hay's most recent book, Vandiemonian Essays, reached The Sunday Tasmanian's bestseller list earlier this year following positive reviews in The Age, Australian Book Review, The Mercury, and Island. His previous title, Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought, a history of the ideas of the environmental movement and a monumental tour de force, attracted international acclaim. Hay possesses a literary pedigree that suggests someone to whom writing comes naturally.
But is this genuinely the case?
Emphatically not, he says.
'When I say I love writing,' Hay explains, 'I mean, yes, I love it when I'm engaged in it, but I'll do everything under the sun to avoid it. I'm the greatest of procrastinators, if there's anything - a dish in the sink, a speck of dust on the carpet that needs the vacuum run over it - I'll do anything to avoid it.'
In an interview recorded many years ago, novelist Peter Carey mentioned that one of the reasons he became a writer was because he 'had no hope of communicating intelligently by any other method. I needed time and some solitude to work out what I thought.' Were there resonances for Hay in Carey's comment?
'Well that's a question that's a bit timely since I'm supposed to be writing an essay on the question of why I write,' he replied.
'I don't write because I think I've profound truths that other people would benefit from having exposure to. I don't write to provide anyone with answers, I write to provide people with dilemmas. My essays - even my poetry lately - are written to set up tensions that are ultimately not resolved. I explore the tensions, but I don't conclude.'
'Poetry more than any other form of writing is about the shape and sound of words. I write less poetry because I don't want to be enigmatic ... and enigma, it seems to me, is a part of successful poetry. A poem needs to leave people wondering, needs to be capable of a multitude of meanings. In my essays I might set up tensions - and mightn't resolve the tensions - but I want people to know what's at stake within the tensions. I want to be more literal, I want to be more transparent than I can be in poetry.'
'I wouldn't come out with a statement that's as driven as Carey's. I sometimes say that I write because I have to, but really I write because I enjoy it. I like the shape of words, I like the sound of them. When marking an academic essay, I'll write a big angry comment in the margin if someone's written a sentence that doesn't have a verb in it; yet I'm quite happy, within my own creative writing, to write a sentence without a verb, to break all the grammatical rules under the sun if I think it serves the sound and phrasing of it, the shape of the edifice that the words build.'
In Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought, Hay remarked on the experience of Henry David Thoreau who spent two years in the woods of Walden Pond absorbing the lessons he hoped might refashion society. The key for Thoreau lay in an absence of complication. 'Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!' Hay writes, quoting Thoreau; 'I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.' Yet Hay's lifestyle appears the antithesis of all Thoreau suggests. In his pocket a scribbled list serves as a reminder of the hundred and one everyday tasks he intends to fulfil. In quoting the American, one might suspect sympathy with his injunction, but it holds little claim on Pete so far as I can see.
'But it does!' is Hay's firm rejoinder. 'It's very much a case of do as I say, not as I do. I'd love to live a simple life; I yearn after it. And I think Thoreau had it right. But the world within which I live - late industrial capitalism, a brave new millenium - where the ruling ideology talks about doing more with less, where an economic system demands every last drop of your blood within working hours and even beyond ... it's very hard to live a simple life in the times within which we live.'
'I could make life simpler by not writing,' he says. Then adds reflectively, 'But that isn't an option ...'
'I could retire ... and do nothing but write. But so much of the impetus to write comes from the cut and thrust of interaction with the very many people I meet during the course of my daily life, often in the workplace.' Retirement, Hay suspects, would serve to lock him into a simpler lifestyle and render him less capable of continued contribution to the community of which he's a part. 'A few people would think that would be a good, not a bad thing,' he adds mischievously.
'Once upon a time the sorts of contradictions I struggle to write about used to really worry me because I felt that in not being able to resolve them, I'd be making an admission of saying one thing but living something else, of being a hypocrite. But actually I think the hypocritical thing is to artificially resolve something which is innately complex.'
By way of explanation, Hay mentioned Martin Flanagan's 'exceedingly generous article' in Island with its one or two muted criticisms of his book Vandiemonian Essays. 'Martin doesn't think there are enough stories in it. But I'm an ideas person. I want to roll ideas around, turn them this way and that and invite the reader in as well. I get heartily dismayed by certitude, by people who are convinced they're bloody right, because it seems to me it's those people who've gotten this world into a mess. I think that's the one thing I'd say to George W. Bush if ever I had his ear, that I'd like people with power to be more alive to complexity and nuance and see how things look from different seatings.'
Hay's remark is a response to declamations such as 'You're either with us or agin us', and the simple ideological certainties the words connote. He is, for instance, a trenchant critic of U.S. presidential administrations treating the rest of the world as a quarry to be mined in the name of the middle-American lifestyle. 'We have no Biodiversity Convention because Bush the Elder deemed a narrow range of humankind's perceived economic interests to merit precedence. We have no Climate Change Convention because Bush the Younger is the creature of the powerful oil lobby that stands to lose most from such a convention.' And he is scathingly critical of Bush's dealings with the United Nations . 'In terms of my utter hostility to the regime of George W. Bush, one of the reasons why I am so jaundiced about this man is because of the lasting damage he has done to the credibility of the United Nations. The President of the United States sees the U.N. as a monumental inconvenience that gets in his way of doing whatever he wants to do … when in fact the United Nations is a fantastic organisation. There are species that still exist because of the work that the United Nations' specialised agencies have done. There are so many people who owe their lives simply to the existence of the United Nations. There are so many societies that are still moderately functionable because of the work of the United Nations. People look at its failures in international diplomacy, but even there it has lots of credits to balance against the failures. Nevertheless, the failures are spectacular. That's why you notice them.'
Few within the intellectual ascendancy of the political Right might agree. But others mourn the missed opportunities of the world for transforming itself into something more ennobling during the post-Cold War period of modern politics. In The Weekend Australian last year, John Le Carre wrote lamenting the lack of a world-class statesman and man-of-the-hour with the voice and vision to define for us the real, if unglamorous, enemies of mankind: poverty, famine, slavery, tyranny, drugs, bushfire, wars, racial and religious intolerance, greed.
Hay is sympathetic.
'I agree. How can you not agree? The consuming tragedy of the time in which we live is that at precisely the time when we needed statesmen of the cut of Woodrow Wilson or Franklin B. Roosevelt - even a John Curtin type of statesmen - we got Johnny Howard in Australia and George W. Bush in America.'
'When the "evil empire" fell with the Berlin Wall, I imagined we'd no longer be living under the shadow of instant annihilation. That it'd be not only psychologically liberating but economically liberating as well, we'd no longer have to feed the rapacious maw of the military machines. Christ, even the money spent on this single war to get rid of one tinpot Iraqi dictator ... could have solved all the world's environmental problems. God I get angry about that! We had the chance … had the window open to pour money into the areas necessary to make this a sustainable world … could have solved all the injustices, even the global ones. Could have turned the earth into the paradise that religions have always promised us it could be. All we had to do was take the money away from the military budget; and once there was no longer an evil empire that was a real prospect.'
'But we've got Johnny Howard. Back to the future. Back to Robert Gordon Menzies.'
Mention Howard and he fires up. 'I'd like to go on record about the Howard government.'
'I'm glad the Howard government won an election. They did two great things the Labor Party never could have delivered. They gave us gun control. The Labor Party couldn't have delivered that because they couldn't have carried the conservative States. And they gave us a liberated East Timor; the Labor Party wouldn't have done that because Keating was too matey with Suharto. Howard did both of those things within his first term of office. They are the only two things he's done that are worth a cracker; they're both two big-ticket items however.' 'If you could extract those two things - which you can't, in all fairness do - but if you played a silly game and extracted those two things then I'd have to say this is the most appalling government that I've ever seen in my entire lifetime. And it's doubly worse because it exists precisely at the time - the change of millenium - when we're thinking about all sorts of long-term, for-the-future type issues.'
I suggested that with the Labor leadership making little impact on public opinion, the intellectual Left - within Australia at least - appears in a quandary.
'Yes, the Left's in a mess,' Hay agreed, 'because history has betrayed them ... betrayed me as well. So what do they do? Some of them cling to old sureties. Some of them maintain the core faith, but nevertheless have moved with the times to the extent that they can make exceedingly cogent sense of the world in which they live. Dear old Max Bound, who for thirty years was the public face of communism in Tasmania, is one of those. Then there are others who simply walk out on the Left. Become economic rationalists. The world's full of them. Trendies, people who go where the temporary strength is.'
Complex issues. My next question dealt with the issue of euthanasia but scarce raised an eyebrow. I'd sought Hay's reaction to a newspaper article by Andrew McGarry in The Weekend Australian, August 2002, which highlighted the case of South Australian Jo Shearer, a 56 year old former journalist who wrote she'd everything to live for ... 'two fantastic kids, a nice house, great friends, a passion for learning foreign languages, the ability to travel overseas free' … but couldn't manage to live within her pain threshold. 'I do not like giving up. I hate giving up. I don't believe I have any quality of life whatsoever. I have no other reason to die except this unbearable pain,' she wrote. Shearer died alone - presumably to protect her children from appearing as accessories to legal proceedings - having organised to publicly release the details of her plight after her funeral, hoping to highlight what she believed are inhumane euthanasia laws.
'I worry about this,' Pete replied after some consideration. 'And the reason I worry is that I don't see complexity here. I've just owned up to being a fan of complexity on one level and of simplicity on another - intellectual complexity and physical simplicity - but I don't see intellectual complexity here, this seems to me to be so straightforward. A person has control over their own piece of biological matter. It's theirs to dispose of as they wish. I don't even think you need to be terminally ill.'
'Of course I don't think you should be able to get up one day and say, Jesus, I banged on an awful beauty last night - I've got this appalling hangover, I think I'll kill myself. I think there should be lots of hoops you should have to jump through. But having jumped through them all, I think you're entitled to say: that's it! If your life circumstances are such, if your quality of life is appalling on other grounds, I think that should be an option, after all other avenues are explored that should be open to people.'
'If nothing else, she's died, and the most important part of proceedings for the people who are close to her, the grief process, has been denied because they've not been present at her death. I think this is awful beyond all belief.'
At the 2002 State elections, an upsurge of support for the Tasmanian Greens resulted in its party representation increasing fourfold. Attributing the support to a campaign along the lines of social equity issues, ecological awareness, issues of democracy, peace and non-violence, Greens' leader Peg Putt declared it a welcome break from the perception of the Greens as a single-issue party.
It's a petty criticism, says Hay, who sees the dynamism of environmental thought as so complex '… that to connote - to boil it down to a single issue - is like ... what's a good analogy? ... is like suggesting that Australian Rules football is about the dropkick and nothing else.' He argues that environmentalism is a fully fledged ideology, as capable of making sense of all the policy domains as any of the other ideologies. 'There are only three ideological traditions, only liberalism, conservatism and socialism. And now environmentalism ... this new kid on the block which has turned up against all the lessons of history in the late twentieth-century. Feminism? Well the jury I think is still out on whether feminism is a stand-alone ideology, I'm not sure the evidence will sustain that. But environmentalism clearly is. It is not socialism, it is not conservatism, it is not liberalism - it is a new way of looking at the world.'
Nor is it a new religion ... though Amanda Lohrey in a recent issue of Overland points to 'the latent and not-so-latent pantheism' of the Green movement and its strong affinities with Buddhism. Hay agrees that Buddhism professes an appropriate inter-species empathy devoid of hierarchy; but the inward-turning nature of its spirituality makes it less than effective in establishing new and less destructive relationships with other life. Neither does conventional Western religious faith hold much appeal for him. Mainstream Christianity's ideal of stewardship over nature is fundamentally at odds with a green philosophy placing markedly less emphasis on the rights of humankind than presently privileged.
'But while green philosophy is not a new religion,' Hay adds, 'it has religious elements. It has a religious face. But all its elements are not religious. Just as you can make a case that there is a religious face to crusading socialism. And even a religious face to crusading market liberalism. I would certainly argue that. And historically there have been no problems in saying there is a religious face to conservatism, it's been a close alliance.'
Hay's individual perspective is not always immediately apparent to the casual reader of Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought. Certainly, he surmises, makes allusions ... 'I am, nonetheless, slightly out of step with some of the critics discussed above,' he might write, or 'Perhaps. But it is my strong impression that it is certainly a minority position today. A more characteristic position is that advanced by ... ' His brief is that of the mapmaker, the result a knitting together of often disparate themes into one convergent text. 'Environmentalism's capacity for resilience lies in this plurality [of voices]; it is to pattern out, and present its multiplicity of ideas that I have written this book.'
'It could have used another four chapters,' he admits reflectively.
To be 'dispassionate' is to resile from emotion or bias, my dictionary suggests. I've a fleeting urge to describe Main Currents in Environmental Thought as a dispassionate document; but of course I can't, so I'll settle for a qualifier. Hay's 400-page publication is the result of ten years of focused research and writing. If I proclaim him a passionate man, does proof reside in the act of writing or in the finished product? For mine, the decisive factor is the act of writing, the ten years tapping into whatever wellsprings of energy it's taken to enable him to complete the task. The result is this open-ended document, less an attempt to persuade than to create a map of many hues and contours. It's Hay wearing another hat - that of facilitator - besides the many others he sports with aplomb.
Though one hat fits less than comfortably ...
Pete Hay has on occasion been colloquially defined as a 'Watermelon Green', as the following bite from an interview recorded in 1995 reveals:
Hay: "And as for you and me, we're the Pariah Dog Party."
Flanagan: "Watermelon Greens, Hazy."
Hay: "Watermelon Greens mate."
Flanagan: "Green on the outside, red on the inside."
Hay: "The difficulty is, as my wife who is pretty astute has pointed out, watermelons are mushy and soft and pretty insubstantial ..."
Flanagan: "Did she say that?"
Hay: "Yeah. She wasn't saying that this was a problem with you Richard, she says it's a problem with the metaphor ..."
Hay's never been comfortable with the watermelon-green analogy. 'I'd have thought I was the opposite, green on the inside and slightly pink on the outside,' he clarifies, before returning again to his belief that the future needs necessarily to be Green.
'You simply can't live my professional life and not believe that we are in deep trouble unless we learn to interact in a fundamentally different way with the physical world. We are not living a sustainable life. I think this is more important - more important, which is why I ended up falling out with the comrades - more important than worrying about questions of equity and justice between people. How we interact with the biophysical world is a more fundamental question than that. A prior question, one that has to be resolved first ... well, not necessarily first, life's not so linear that you have to say we'll fix this problem then we'll move onto the next problem. It is possible to deal with several problems at the same time. But the sustainability problem is the prior problem.' And here lies the impasse. Society, Hay believes, needs to green up to survive, yet hasn't the capacity to engender such radical change. (At least, not wilfully so. Maybe nothing short of calamity will induce change, but it's not a word that figures in Pete's lexicon).
His deep-rooted concern oft casts a pall over a naturally ebullient spirit. Richard Flanagan has taken to calling him the Hanrahan of Hobart: 'We'll all be rooned!'
'I think miserable is the word,' Hay muses. 'The reason that I'm a miserable, gloomy bastard is that I don't see resolutions. The genie's out of the bottle. We've lived this high-rolling life-style that's destroying the planet and we can't put the genie back in the bottle. Ahhh ... it's a tragedy because most of us know on one level that we're doing it, but we've no capacity to do anything about it. A government that was serious about tackling environmental problems would get crucified in an election, because taking the action that would have to be taken would so threaten the comfort levels people demand to live at. So ... that's why I'm miserable. And gloomy. And pessimistic - no fun to be around.'
'Most Green activists live lives of quiet, or even not so quiet despair because they see such a short period of time in which to change things,' he says, continuing. 'And such a vast gulf that needs to be crossed before things are going to be changed. That's why so many of them, when they become politically involved, are so strident, so in-your-face, so urgent... saying we've got to do this, and we've got to do it quickly. And I agree with them, we've got to do this and we've got to do it quickly. It's just that saying it doesn't lead people to vote for you. That's why they seem to be so outspokenly full of answers ... though it's not that they're so full of answers, it's more that they're so full of angst; so anxious to turn things around, so anxious that there be real change.'
Determining solutions is never easy, particularly for a social movement where division over policy objectives and priorities is common. Those divisions can be bitter. Environmental commentator Tim Doyle was subsequently sued and the first edition of his book Green Power, published in 2000, pulped when he made reference to what he perceived as the narrowly based environmental objectives of various individuals and groups in Australian conservation circles.
'You're right,' Hay agreed. 'There are divisions within the environmental movement I don't understand. One of the areas where I disagree with Tim, for instance - and we argue about this in the pub till the cows come home - is that he thinks there is no such thing as the environment movement. Yet there are lots of environment movements, and many of them have little in common with each other.'
'Tim insists basically on a European, sort of an old-fashioned Left-Marxist distinction between a concern for nature which is narrow and a concern for the environmental amenity of the working-class, which is broad. The latter's radical, the former's conservative. Tim's not - as far as I know - a card-carrying Marxist of any sort, but he works out of that paradigm ... which I reject at that point. My Main Currents in Environmental Thought exists to demonstrate that there are common threads within the multitude of paradigms devised by people who unpack their different environmental concerns and causes and varying takes on the world. There is an underlying coherence - a huge amount of diversity within the coherence - but a coherence that enables you to meaningfully and accurately talk about a thing called the environmental movement. Tim won't wear that. But ah ... lovely man, Tim Doyle. Hates a drink! I talked to him on the telephone today. He had the nerve to suggest I couldn't play cricket. He's never seen me play cricket, by Jesus I had hard words with him about that,' Hay says, laughing.
The complexity of environmental debate is difficult to untangle. Take the case of Landcare, considered a worthy institution in the eyes of most casual observers but construed by many environmentalists in a far different light. The Landcare movement gained impetus during the 1980's, and became funded at federal government level in 1989. In the years since, it's dealt with issues such as soil erosion and is keen to be more involved in forest issues on state and private land though in non-confrontational ways.
Which isn't a strategy that appeals to critics like Christine Milne, the former leader of the Tasmanian Greens. Milne believes the development of parallel environment movements sidelines the community into apparently worthy environmental action without challenging the perpetrators of environmental damage. Hay's of the same opinion.
'These people do great things,' he admits, 'and a lot of people have been greened up through involvement in Landcare and so on. But I'm very cynical about the Howard government's motives for setting them up. It was an attempt to make the environment a non-political issue, which meant that the real perpetrators of environmental desecration can go about their business unchallenged because we're all running around planting a tree here, pulling out a few willows there, putting a nice little track around the riverside here and pulling out some pampas grass there. But which was leaving the structures of environmental destruction untouched.'
Hay turned to academic and long-time friend Tony McCall to launch his book Vandiemonian Essays in Launceston twelve months ago. Hay and McCall share similar views, both being deeply immersed in environmental debate and activity within Tasmania. In an ABC-7ZR radio interview in February 2003, McCall called for the State's forest debate to be quickly moved into the policy arena before Tasmania loses its forest industry. 'Not until then will the landscape change because at present all of the current stakeholders and government are comfortable in their viewpoints.'
Hay agrees, arguing that the intensely political nature of forestry puts people in the trenches, and allows for little flexibility in policy. We'd benefit from a calmer, cooler, less adversarial political environment, he says.
Utilisation of the State's forest resources is an issue that continues to divide Tasmanians. From my point of view (as someone who works within the industry), I find there's scarce common ground; too many non-negotiables, too little effort towards reaching jointly developed positive outcomes. According to a report in The Mercury newspaper, at a recent Senate Standing Committee into the plantation forest industry one conservationist suggested the Tasmanian forest industry's system of self-regulation to be so corrupt 'that the people who work for it and in it are necessarily corrupt'. With this issue, it seems, it's difficult for some to accept that there are men and women of good faith positioned on either side of the debate.
'The issue here isn't only forestry,' says Hay, 'it's likely to develop over any issue where people feel very strongly about the outcome and where you have government inflexibility. It would happen if the issue was health, or education, or the Bass Strait transport subsidy, it wouldn't matter. Neither would it matter whether it was in Tasmania or anywhere else, it's simply what happens when you get governments inflexibly committed to a position which large numbers of people very powerfully disagree with. You get the invocation of bullshit claims of mandates.'
Pete's wife, Anna arrived with a tray of tea - 'just a contrast of flavours to what you're drinking at the moment' - and joined the conversation, which turned to the recent visit to Hobart by East Timorese President Xanana Gusmoa.
Anna: I've heard him interviewed; he said what he'd really like to be is a pumpkin farmer.
Pete: That's why, of all the world's public figures, this man - and it's a bad thing to idolise anyone - but I idolise this man more than anyone else ...
Anna: Not the Dalai Lama?
Pete: No no ... this man! This man was given a country to run, and he said no, it's not me. Not me. He's a man who then says, I've written some poetry; but it's not much good. What am I good at? Oh, raising pumpkins. Christ, wouldn't you wish for that sort of sensibility in George W. Bush? What would you give for that? I'd give heaps.
Anna: I'd love to hear George W. Bush say no to the question of 'will you run the country?'
Pete: Oh yeah. George's line would be, no doubt:
Well, I lost the election.
Hadn't better run the country cos I didn't quite get over the line.
I gave it my best shot.
Here Al ... take over. Do your best with Iraq, and ...
Changing topic, I enquired about Pete Singer, someone I knew Anna and Pete to be familiar with, both personally and through his work. 'What's Singer like?'
Pete: 'He's a great man... '
Anna: 'Very principled... '
Pete: 'I introduced him at a Writer's Festival on the same platform as Peter Goldsworthy at the time Goldsworthy wrote Honk If You Like Jesus. It was a panel looking at the relationship between science and literature, in particular it was about Frankenstein science. If you remember, Goldsworthy's Honk If You Like Jesus was predicated on the notion that there was enough of Jesus' DNA on the Turin Shroud to clone Jesus, and interestingly one of the sub-plots of Goldworthy's book deals with the cloning of the thylacine. But the immediate reaction to the book was to label it scientific idiocy ... you can't do this. It was a matter of two years before the science was in place to say you can do this. It was a terrific book, a great political satire, which has fallen by the wayside. The risk you run if you work at the cutting edge of science, is that events will overtake you and you'll be made irrelevant - but in no wise did it make Goldsworthy irrelevant. Anyway, Goldsworthy and Singer were on the same bill, down at Hobart's CSIRO theatre - a great community facility which no-one gets access to any more - where Singer gave a terrific talk outlining his interest in animal liberation … the best summary of his views that I know of, and subsequently published by Island.'
'Singer's a terrific bloke. Even though in terms of the myriad contradictory positions within environmental thought, I'm not in Singer's camp - I'm a carnivore, for one thing - I like him. And I think his position is well thought out, though I've a lot more sympathy for some of his larger contextual priorities than I have for his narrower animal liberation views. I think his more recent writing where he takes a greater global perspective is terrific. But as for the initial, animal liberation work, I think it's coherent, it's a great contribution to the debate - don't agree with it, glad it's there.'
Mention of Goldworthy's book and its reference to cloning of the thylacine reminded me of a newspaper article. 'Do you remember Wayne Crawford's piece in The Mercury newspaper some time ago in support of the same position? How over a beer you said it was a good idea?'
A chuckle from Hay.
'I play this game with my students,' he recalled, 'where I say: okay? The thylacine can be brought back. The science exists, will you do it? And we have a great argument. The 'anti' people win hands down: don't bring it back. The Nick Mooney position, ie there's a limited amount of money, use it for species conservation to keep in existence those species that currently exist but are threatened. And they end up saying to me ... what do you think? You sit here asking these questions, what's your position? And I say, well I think those of you who have argued for not cloning the thylacine have won the argument hands down. Happens every year.'
Anna: 'Well ... because it's the right position ... '
Pete: 'And then I say, if I could get thylacine back by any bloody means, I would do it. And they say, why? And I say: nothing rational. But there's a dark absence in Tasmania, and that's the thylacine ... I want it back!'
Anna: 'Okay. If you had to choose between saving twenty species this year in Tasmania that were threatened ...'
Pete: 'I'd save the twenty species. But I want thylacine back nevertheless. If it can be cloned, I want it back, and I say: you won the debate, you're right - now give me the thylacine!'
Anna: 'You want to have your cake and eat it too.'
'Last question, Pete,' I pressed. 'You've talked about the role of beauty ...'
'I work with Jane Quon, a multi-media artist, on the intersection of visual arts with environmental thought. But I think beauty is an irrelevant criterion,' said Hay, interrupting.
'But beauty is used in arguing for the environment,' I continued. 'I'm thinking of one of the quotes in Helen Gee's book, For the Forests, to the effect that it’s important to think about the visual imagery of a protest. 'There’s no point organising something that will attract the media unless the images that people see on their TV screens will evoke a sympathetic response.'
'Yes, in the Franklin it was used till the cows came home,' he replied. 'But ecology knows nothing called beauty. It's not a relevant criterion. I'm attracted to the visual arts as a way of unpacking environmental messages into aesthetic language in a way that has nothing to do with beauty ... which is a challenge.'
'I think the environmental movement gets in a lot of trouble about this. I have to concede that I care more for what is called in the literature "charismatic species" - koalas and platypuses and such - than I do for the microscopic organisms that are threatened. Little scrubby plants ... I've got one at my shack on Bruny Island, a little scrubby insignificant thing called Acacia gunnii. If God said, righto Hay, I'll give you a choice…'
Anna: 'Sophie's Choice ...'
Pete: 'That's right. If God said, "This is your pitch for immortality Hay, I've chosen you to decide between the polar bear and Acacia gunnii." Well, I'm going to say the polar bear.'
Anna: 'No no no ... let's take the case of six Acacia gunnii compared with the equivalent of the polar bear.'
Pete: 'I'm being given the choice between two species ...'
Anna: 'Yes, but that's an obvious choice, that you're going to go with the one that has these aesthetic values. But if He said to you - or She - Acacia gunnii is fabulous because it also supports endangered insect species and holds together very rare topsoil in that area ...'
Pete: 'No, I'll still go for the polar bear.'
Anna: 'Even though that better topsoil is able to support the other endangered species?'
Pete: 'If they're little insignificant scrubby plant species I'll still say the polar bear. But - this is the sting in the tail - having said that ... that's me, you see. To be honest, most people, if they're going to be honest, they're going to say that … the same as I've said. But at an intellectual level I don't think aesthetics have anything to do with it. The spotted ugly-horned dogfish has as much right to exist as the polar bear, at the intellectual level I have to concede that. That's what the brain tells me. That's the sting in the tail. Wonderful mixed metaphors, Ralph.'
(Recorded April 2003 in Hobart, published in Famous Reporter 28, December 2003).
Other interviews with Pete Hay
OTHER WRITING BY PETE HAY