Oceanic narratives: Interweaving past, present and future

Explore the history, science, and beauty of the natural world with Australian author James Bradley, marine biologist Maria Byrne, ocean and climate advocate Tishiko King, and The Guardian's Helen Sullivan.

The ocean holds a vast space of meaning and connections. It has shaped and sustained life on earth for billions of years, nurturing the evolution of species, fostering a deep connection with Indigenous cultures, witnessing the devastation of colonial exploration, and suffering the consequences of extractivist expansion.

James Bradley’s latest book, Deep Waterjoins new scholarship that reckons with humanity’s complex relationship to the natural world. Through the lens and narratives of the ocean, it offers vital new ways of understanding and being in the world, and how we anticipate our climate future.

Hear James Bradley expand on these ideas alongside Maria Byrne, Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Sydney and world expert on echinoderms; Tishiko King, proud Kulkalaig woman from the Island of Masig and Badugal of Themu Clan in the Torres Straits and is an ocean and climate advocate; and The Guardian's Helen Sullivan, who hosts this event. 

Delve into the stories, beauty and mysteries of the deep sea and life through time.

Presented with Sydney Environment Institute, this event was held on Monday 8 April 2024 at the University of Sydney.

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Audio transcript

[00:00:00] Alex Siegers (Podcast host): Welcome. This is the Sydney Ideas Podcast, bringing you public talks and conversations featuring the best and brightest minds at the University of Sydney and beyond. This podcast is recorded at the University of Sydney's Camperdown campus on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. They've been discovering and sharing knowledge here for tens of thousands of years.

We pay our respects to elders past and present. and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

[00:00:32] Helen Sullivan: I'm Helen Sullivan, I'm a columnist and world news reporter at The Guardian. I'm very excited to be your host and moderator this evening. Tonight's public discussion is called 'Oceanic Narratives, Interweaving Past, Present, and Future' and it's presented by the Sydney Environment Institute. We're going to be delving into the beauty, science, and history of the natural world, deep sea, and life through time and we've got three brilliant minds joining us here today.

I'd like to welcome onto the stage, Dr James Bradley OAM, writer, critic, and author of Deep Water, and an honorary associate of the Sydney Environment Institute.

Professor Maria Byrne, professor of Marine Biology here at the University of Sydney, and a world expert on echinoderms.

And Tishiko King, ocean and climate advocate, and proud Kulkalaig woman from the island of Masig and Badugal of Themu Clan in the Torres Straits.

Alright, James. This book, this very thick, beautiful book, with an enormous, vast subject matter. It's a brilliant achievement, it is absolutely wonderful, and I just want to say that even thinking about taking this on makes me feel dizzy. When did you come up with the idea? And then how did you even begin to approach it?

[00:01:43] James Bradley: So, it's actually a book I've been thinking about for a really long time, I started thinking about it more than 20 years ago, so, yes, it's a huge subject and it took me a really long time to convince myself that I'm able to write it.

I guess what I wanted to do with it was, it seems to me that we're in a moment in history where there's this kind of convergence of crises and it's very difficult to think about them. I mean, you start trying to wrap your head around what's going on and there's a kind of sense that it's so big and so difficult you can't do anything with it.

It seemed to me that the ocean might offer a way of providing a frame of reference that was larger so you could think about some of those questions in ways that they made sense. And that's both because I think that, in a sense, global history is oceanic, once you look at the oceans, once you look at things from an oceanic perspective, you see things like this idea that the Anthropocene began in 1945, in fact, no, there's a much deeper history to it.

It spreads right back you can see it go through colonisation, things like that. But also because the ocean is such a model of kind of continuity and connectivity and it really does connect all of us in a profound and deep way. Across time and across species and it allows you to kind of see connections and correspondences by thinking through it that might not otherwise be available.

And I also think, going back to that first idea that things are overwhelming, one of the things we know is that encounters with larger frames of reference actually shift the way we think about things. And there's a whole lot of really powerful research showing that people, and Julia Baird in fact talks about this in one of her books, , but that kind of sense that being brought up against things that are larger than yourself and being made to feel small actually makes you feel more connected. It makes you feel that you are part of something. It makes you feel more engaged, it makes you make more it's fascinating you know, that kind of sense of feeling connected makes us behave differently, so it seemed to me that thinking that way also might be a kind of route towards I guess maybe finding a way to a more mobilised way of approaching these things.

[00:03:42] Helen Sullivan: You put it very beautifully. You say, in a very real, we write, in a very real sense, the ocean is the original hyper object. Attempting to comprehend its immensity and fluid multiplicity alters us, making it possible to glimpse new continuities and connections. And that's a bit of what you were talking about just now, but I'm very curious to know, how did it change you?

So you kind of entered this, vast thing that somehow hopefully you would then be able to use to understand something even vaster. As in, when it comes to climate change and as you left it again, how has it changed you to write this book?

[00:04:17] James Bradley: It left me very tired. One of the things it did do for me was to give me a sense both of the, and a much more granular sense of the scale of the crisis that we're in, but I think it also in a weird kind of way made me feel more I guess hopeful is the wrong word, but more positive about the idea that there are paths through and they're not going to be they're going to be difficult paths, but there are paths through, because there have to be paths through.

[00:04:44] Helen Sullivan: Could you tell us a bit more about the temporal scale that you argue for in the book? So taking the Anthropocene back to pre-industrialisation, to slavery really, and why that is a helpful way to look at the present.

[00:04:58] James Bradley:  I think there is something about that notion of the Anthropocene it's the notion that it's the anthro that's created, it's not the anthro that's created, it's a really specific set of economics systems that have created that. The kind of sense that it's something that's just kind of happened recently, and it isn't something that's just happened recently, it's got a really deep history going back into that kind of history of colonialism and extraction and where you see those kind of systems of extraction beginning to appear and you see them beginning to appear in the 1400s.

And there you see a kind of shift in human relations, with the environment. Once you see that the impact, the change, the kind of astonishing stuff about, you know, once the Columbian Exchange was happening and you see the population of the Americas, so the, the population of the Americas at the time the Europeans got there, there were about a hundred million Indigenous Americans and by the end of that century, there were about six million.

So that loss of people is so massive that you actually see the climate change because the forests come back and that, I just think once you start thinking about it in that way, you can see that this is not this thing that's just happened in the last 50 or 60 years.

It's something with a 500 year history.

[00:05:59] Helen Sullivan: And the transatlantic slave routes, of course, are happening over the sea. The sea kind of carried this and this sort of horrors of that were happening out where no one could see them on the sea hidden away and very enormous there.

[00:06:12] James Bradley:  I think that the other thing that becomes really clear once you look from an oceanic perspective is that both slavery and Indigenous dispossession are not unfortunate by-products of the system. They're absolutely fundamental to what's going on and you can't back away from them.

[00:06:28] Helen Sullivan: A lot of these themes seem to coalesce in one particular chapter which is the Cocos Keeling chapter. It's the interconnectedness, colonialism, global heating, slavery, and the wonders of the ocean and the abundance and the destruction. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about what it was like to arrive there and what you saw.

One of the quotes I thought was very beautiful was "beneath the bush at the end, at the edge of the sand, a soccer ball lies half buried in broken shards of cups, its pale bleach dome, like a grotesque parody of a skull or egg”, which is a sort of sinister Wilson from Castaway type image, but –

[00:07:00] James Bradley: – Wilson gone bad.

[00:07:01] Helen Sullivan: Yeah. Wilson gone real bad. But yeah, what did you see?

[00:07:05] James Bradley: So the Cocos Islands are an Australian external territory, they are about halfway between Broome and Sri Lanka, they're about 1,000 kilometres from any other land, they're an atoll, they were run essentially as a slave plantation until the 1970s, and they're also very heavily polluted with plastics because they sit in one of the currents that sweeps down from Indonesia.

And I went there with a group of plastic scientists and we were doing surveys on some of the beaches. And, some bits of the island are very beautiful and very pristine, but the beaches that are exposed to the currents are absolutely covered in plastics. And just garbage. And one in particular, which is one of the beaches that Darwin describes in the Voyage of the Beagles.

I was kind of walking on this beach one day and it's just covered in stuff, like stuff. And I thought, I'm going to write a list of all the things I can see. And so I started walking along writing out this list. And it's just like thongs, inner soles, toothbrushes, toys, and the thing where you go every single thing that I touch, everything that makes up my life, the material business of my life goes into the way streaming ends up. Out here. And it was a kind of really powerful moment about how utterly implicated we all are and what's going on, I thought. I have to say also that a friend of mine who runs an environmental organisation read the book and said, you have to take that out because you're letting the corporations off the hook by saying that.

But, you know, it was a very powerful –

[00:08:30] Helen Sullivan: Take the interconnectedness out?

[00:08:31] James Bradley: Yeah. Well, he thought that, you know, by making it a personal thing, I was allowing the larger forces off the hook. But that personal thing, I found really powerful. Quite overwhelming.

[00:08:41] Helen Sullivan: Well, I wonder if Tish, if you might be able to speak a bit to the; it strikes me that if you are from an island it's less easy to live in denial about, for example, the idea that you can throw something away.

If you're on an island, you are very well aware that there is no away.

[00:08:55] Tishiko King: It's so interesting, you just listing all of those things that you shared, because they are the same things that wash up on our shore.

So, I come from the Central Island Group in Kulkalgal Nation in the Torres Strait Islands, from an island called Masig, that translates to York Island. We are two, a Coral Cay Atoll, and in that sort of section of the Torres Straits, there's a few connecting currents through that sort of feed through our blue highway that brings through things that don't belong. Waste is something very new, like plastic is something very, very new in our society. And so, We never had products. Everything we used was from the land, like our plates were from our Makka trees, which are these big beautiful trees that have more than one purpose of them. They were our plates. We used to cut out our coconut bowls, our coconuts so that they were our bowls and everything that we would use we would always return back into the land and feed and nurture our island so that it can continue and nurture us. And so with these introduction of these waste and like plastic products it's really contaminated our oceans and it's really suffocating our coral reefs where we continue to dive and getting ghost nets and picking them up and It's really foreign.

And I know that it's not the cause of the climate crisis, but it's definitely a fucking symptom. Sorry, that was swearing. I realise we're recording. Building on like what you were sharing about like those anthropogenic impacts and just from that space is just, that we've just shifted the way that we live in relation to everything around us and the way that we are moving in this world is just not working.

And we need to come back and shift away from this sort of industrial civilisation that we're so dependent on to an ecological civilisation that you know, is one in harmony with our natural environment.

[00:11:11] Helen Sullivan: Tish, you're very involved in making that shift happen and also in witnessing powerful people who we're relying on to make that shift happen.

You've been to multiple COP conferences, which is something that very few people here can say. Could you paint a picture of what it's like? Does it give you hope? Does it, what's stuck with you? What surprised you? And what's changed from your first one to your most recent?

[00:11:34] Tishiko King: Funny, ha ha. No, sorry, I have to say that. So, for those folks that don't know, the COP conferences are the United Nations Convention of Climate Change where world leaders gather together to make efforts in creating a just and equitable future for all we have activists and storytellers and elders and, businesses that are wanting to shift as well come together in order to bring our ideas, bring our voices, so that we are inclusive to everyone.

My first COP conference was in Glasgow, which was COP26, and remember we had the Morrison government in. We had a really tragic year. We were all going through, coming out of the bushfires, and then it was our first year of COVID, and our communities and the way that we treat each other were just really different.

 I was working as the campaign director over at Seed Mob, which is Australia's first and only youth led First Nations climate group, and I had the fire in my belly. I was ready to, you know, go there, represent my people, represent young people, be there to represent First Nations, and stand together in solidarity, shoulder to shoulder, with other First Nations and Indigenous people globally.

Boy, was I naïve, I mean, it's one thing to navigate politics and structures here, but it was a different ballgame. I walked into the pavilions where it's where countries all highlight what they're doing to be more sustainable and Australia just had their Santos carbon capture pamphlet. Nothing else. The feeling was, I think I nearly vomited. I was really sad. I was near, I was with a couple of friends that were like incredible leaders, like for those that know Richie Merzian over at Smart Energy Council, that was, he was just being a powerhouse there. And I was just like, what's happening over there though?

And I actually ended up being in tears because I didn't know how to actually handle, well, it's not even handle, I didn't even know how to respond and dignify a response to that because, carbon capture storage is unproven technology. And through all the lessons that we learned through the bushfire season, it really amplified the importance of traditional wisdom and knowledge and care for country.

We saw a lot of like approaches and holistic approaches of how we manage and that just looked so far-fetched and I thought we're in the year 2020. Okay, now I have to remember what year that was. 2021? 2020, I think. Yeah, 2020. Yeah. Sorry. And And I was traveling with a traditional owner from the Beetaloo Basin, where fracking is currently happening.

And we saw billions of public money be invested into fracking, as opposed to being directed into our health systems and structures that we really needed at the time. It was just this really overwhelming feeling.

[00:14:48] Helen Sullivan: What did you do when you got back? What made you go to another conference?

[00:14:51] Tishiko King: Yeah like, so, I think more importantly, it made me understand how much international relations dictate our domestic relations here. And that the way that we campaign and advocate is because of the decisions that are being made overseas. While we may be in the global south, Australia is considered a global north country and a part of the G20 countries, which is with China, Russia, Canada, you know, big countries like that.

And so the whole purpose of them existing is to be able to create financial stability and climate change mitigation and sustainable adaptation. Glasgow was just super far removed. But it put the fire in my belly because right now, sea levels rising are really impacting my island community.

[00:15:42] Helen Sullivan: Could you tell us a bit about some specific examples about how it's affecting your community?

[00:15:48] Tishiko King: Yeah, it's really interesting when you were just saying like walking on the beach and all the things that you could see.

I went home in 2020 back to Masig and walked with my belly. Yes, say who, where we actually picked up the bones of one of my grandma's seashells on the beach. Sea levels rising haven't just been happening in the last decade. Our first exodus of relocating to mainland Australia was back in 1937 when there was a mass exodus of our communities that had to come on.

And so something that my communities keep saying to me is that we've been living with this forever. We've been living with this since before we were considered people. We've been living with this before there was world wars. And so this is really confronting.

That really galvanised, for those that don't know eight Torres Strait, you know, claimants took their voices to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, to the International Court of Justice, way in September 2022 the courts actually found that Australian government was violating the rights of Torres Strait Islander people that actually set precedent for our Indigenous people globally.

And so, going back to the COPs is while it wasn't ratified domestically, it's how we stand together with other First Nations people, to have that powerful voice, stand in unity, because together we are strong.

[00:17:14] Helen Sullivan: It's a huge David and Goliath sort of moment. I mean to think that small islands that don't get listened to that much could then make that huge difference.

It's quite incredible. And that from, I mean, you described your kind of naiveness and that from that naiveness almost came this like, alright well I also know what's really going on.

[00:17:31] Tishiko King: Exactly and now that I'm aware of that it has made me be like, okay, just keep it arms-length away from that so you know, not to wear my heart too much on my sleeve.

But I think the biggest thing is that last year in COP 28 in Dubai an amazing thing came out, which was in the first 24 hours, the loss and damage fund was operationalised. And how this sort of weaves in, when we won our case, when Torres Strait Islanders won their case, we were the first, Australia is the first developed nation that has to pay loss and damage.

The outcome of the loss and damage fund actually is a pin drop in what's required to support people globally. But the biggest thing is that it's only accessible for small island developing nations which means First Nations people here in this country cannot access it. Even if you've won a case against them, that we cannot access it because we are a "developed nation". And so, where this links in is that Australia has signed up in 2009, UNDRIP, which is the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.

They are obligated to be able to do all that they can to protect their people, but we still continue to see barriers and challenges for that.

[00:18:50] Helen Sullivan: Yeah. Is there anything anyone in this room should do to help change that?

[00:18:55] Tishiko King: I think as we sort of continue on with these conversations, one thing to know, if you already don't, Australia has put in a bid to partner with the Pacific Island Nations for COP31.

And so I think when we look at this, we need to look at what's happened to our political landscape in the last year with First Nations justice, what that means when we work with Pacific Island Nations and Australia's obligations to supporting what's in their backyard. And I think when we look at that, how we come together in unity for everyone.

[00:19:28] Helen Sullivan: Maria, I would like you to use this bit of time at the beginning of my questions for you to convince the lovely people in this room that sea urchins are great.

[00:19:40] Maria Byrne: Sea urchins are really important ecologically, and they're actually vilified.

They're called the spiny enemy. Yes. In fact, there's campaigns to Canberra for the Tasmanians because the sea urchins have gone south. But in other places, the sea urchins are resourced, they're fished. Yeah. They're eaten. It's a bit of a balance, and I think Australia is out of kilter, absolutely, with the way it's approaching.

They're not black or white. So we have in New South Wales, sea urchins, which have been here for hundreds of years, and maybe First Nations people in the South Coast have said, the urchins are increasing. That probably is right, because climate change, these animals, they like it warmer.

They certainly didn't want the 13-degree barrier but as soon as Tasmania's winter started to get warm, happy days. Yeah. So they've all gone south. You can't blame them for that. No, that's right. That's a climate change problem. But at the same time where sea urchins are native, are endemic, Saltree Islands Marine Park, if we didn't have sea urchins in Saltree Islands Marine Park, we wouldn't have corals.

The sea urchins eat the kelp that keep the corals happy. So there is, again, swings and roundabouts with respect to where animals live within the ecosystem and what they're doing. And the devil is in the detail. So we won't go into any more detail, I suppose, but climate change is the elephant in the room here. Everything is changing.

[00:21:00] Helen Sullivan: And sea urchins should not be scapegoated.

[00:21:01] Maria Byrne: No. And neither should crown-of-thorns for the same reason. Just because they've overfished and we know that the Barrier Reef right now is undergoing enormous bleaching.

[00:21:11] Helen Sullivan: Could you tell us, you've just come back from seeing the bleaching, could you tell us a bit about that?

I understand you dived with your daughter?

[00:21:16] Maria Byrne: Well it's an interesting story. I was going independently with my daughter, she'd be absolutely mortified, but anyway, there you go.

[00:21:23] Helen Sullivan: What are mums there for if not to mortify their daughters?

[00:21:24] Maria Byrne: Yes well, I was teaching my students. And she was coming up to work with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service to work with the turtle team.

I was teaching my students and the turtle team said to her, well the turtle nests are four degrees above normal, they're hatching early, and most, and half of these turtle nests are dead, so there won't be anything for you to do when you come up here. She managed to get two nests out of twenty.

And she says, what can I do? I say, well you can volunteer at One Tree Island, where the University of Sydney has a research station. There's this terrible bleaching event and no one seems to be recording it. Go out there and tag as many corals as you can. So she did.

[00:22:01] Helen Sullivan: Could you tell us how do you tag a coral?

[00:22:03] Maria Byrne: So what was really important to know, and my colleagues that are working on how corals die – how they die geologically and by erosion and how reefs get flattened, to actually be able to document that, you've got to follow the coral from when it was healthy to when it was bleached, and did it recover from that bleaching?

So for instance, in 2016, all the corals at One Tree Island recovered. Because there was a cyclone in Fiji, which meant the corals went across the Southern Barrier Reef and the Southern Barrier Reef was saved. From a cyclone. That hammered Fiji. This year, One Tree Island wasn't so lucky. There was no cyclone.

We don't really want a cyclone, but as a result then the corals started to bleach, and they got paler and paler and paler. We are all up on the reef watching them going paler and paler, and the real trouble is that all of a sudden, it wasn't in the news anymore. It's almost like, oh, it's climate change. What can we do about it? It's almost like people are defeatists. We can't be defeatists. This message has to get out there. Because the important thing about coral bleaching is that there's some corals that bleach, the ones that go fast, the ones that live fast and die young, but regenerate, and the other corals that don't bleach, which tend to be long lived, grow slowly, and you don't want to lose those, because they're a hundred years old.

Some are ten years old; some are hundreds of years old. So the really important thing when you see bleaching, is it just the normal species that's the most susceptible to warming? In this case, no. So she tagged as many corals as she could in different varieties, and everything was bleaching. Even the species that normally don't bleach.

One Tree Island lagoon because we have temperature loggers there, was 35 degrees. In February 2010, it was 35 degrees. In February, I mean, in February 2024, it was 25 degrees. February 2010, it was 35 in 2024, 2014, it was 10 degrees cooler, and then it bounced around between 25 degrees to 28 degrees, that's hot.

But when we got to 35 degrees, that's just cooking. The corals, couldn't cope with that. We have got crown-of-thorns at One Tree as well, but if there's no corals, there's no crown-of-thorns. So that might solve that one, you know, but it's a terrible way, it's a terrible state of affairs.

[00:24:20] Tishiko King: And like, you make a really incredible point we're now in a state where our oceans are just absorbing so much, like so much heat and that it's really impacting our coral reef structures and people like mine at Musig, we're really dependent on our coral reef structures because it provides our food.

It's also us first when we're seeing more natural events like cyclones happen harder and faster and frequently during that monsoonal season. It impacts our food security, it impacts our health where, you know, dengue fever and sort of like all of these diseases come through from the tropics.

And so it becomes, it's like a health issue and so when we were hearing this it's like, and that they're going more polewards, it's actually quite scary and frightening.

[00:25:09] Maria Byrne: And it is, as James said in the book with respect to shifting baselines, you can go back to the colonial days when North America was populated by indigenous people.

Yes, climate change isn't the only shifting baseline here. So fossil fuels is one thing, but there's been an enormous experiment with the planet Earth, which has been all very negative it's gone through all the changes in deforestation. The palm oil plantations, the decimation of biodiversity, and the overfishing of cod in the North Atlantic.

I mean, who would've thought you could walk across from the maritimes in Canada to Greenland on the backs of cod? And so, that's not just climate change. These oceans have been messed with for a very, very long time. And the barrier reef, and in Australian waters and off Sydney, it's overfishing.

 That's the other thing that's the elephant in the room. You know, you've got the lobbies of the shooters and the fishers, and I fish and I vote, and it's just like yes you can fish and you can vote, but do you want fish for your future children. So, everything is contributing to the upset of the balance.

So, crown-of-thorns is probably overfishing is the main reason why we've got too many COTS. They often say, the only thing that's going to be left on the planet after nuclear war will be the cockroaches. Well listen, you wonder about what's going to be left in the world after all this. It doesn't have to be a nuclear bomb that goes off, we're already decimating a lot of our natural world. So you'll have species that are really, really resilient. They might not be the species that will feed the planet though, but they will do quite well.

[00:26:38] Helen Sullivan: So for example, sea urchins or crown-of-thorns, how are they, they're evolving to adapt to –

[00:26:43] Maria Byrne: Well, they're not evolving, they've been around for millions of years, so they're evolved.

But they're incredibly plastic. They can suit the situation. If there's lots to eat, they'll get bigger. It's great, like having a diet pill. But there's not enough to eat, they'll just shrink and they'll hang out for another 10 years. Wait ‘til more food comes back.

There's more coral. Yippee. I'll grow again and then I'll shrink. I mean, there's not many animals in the planet that can do that sort of thing. Some of these echinoderms are incredibly plastic and they can suit the situation and hang out. And well, the corals are dead, or other animals are dead, and that's not, that's natural.

But they've always been like that. They've filled a niche in, in the planet as well, in their marine life, but now other things are gone, like their predators are gone. That would have kept them in check.

[00:27:27] James Bradley: And there's just a massive loss of abundance as well, isn't there? Yeah. I mean, there's amazing stories when you read the historical accounts of how many fish there were, particularly in the sea.

There's an amazing account about when Europeans were first going to the Caribbean. There's huge fields of seagrass around some of the islands, and they could navigate in, in the darkness for the last 20 miles by listening to the sound of the turtles that were feeding, kind of clucking together, because there were so many turtles there.

There were just, you know, millions of turtles feeding there and they're all gone.

[00:27:54] Tishiko King: It just makes me think about the stories of the past and the lessons of the past and how we can learn from them to make decisions today for a better tomorrow. There's a constellation we call Baidam, which is the shark, that when it's nose hits the tip of our horizon, we know when a tree will fruit, and then we know that we can catch fish from an ocean.

That's our traditional knowledge in science, but translating that to Western science, our sky and our ocean are a coupled system. We work so in sync, and so there are real lessons that we can really implement into the way that we moved for this, because, and learn from it, what we can do.

But we're now at a point where the seasonal cues of what we could see naturally aren't in season anymore. And our adaptation measures that we could work because of pollution, and the changes. It's really hard to use traditional knowledge in, and weave that back into our practices.

And that's something that is coming from what you said that, you know, we've got extractivism from our land and our oceans that is polluting our sky and it's just not balanced.

[00:29:12] Helen Sullivan: And everything from whales, as you write about so beautifully, their songs, they're being impacted by sound in the ocean, to krill, which I did not know about krill. But krill, which you can see from space, the swarms, they're so big, are being hugely impacted by overfishing and climate change.

[00:29:28] James Bradley: What we were just talking about, so the krill, the krill have a really specific and quite complex life cycle, and they are the absolute foundation of the Antarctic, many of you will know this, but they're the foundation of the Antarctic ecosystem. Everything eats the krill, basically.

Their life cycle is kind of tuned to the movement of the sea ice, and to the flowering of the phytoplankton you get down there as the sea ice kind of retreats, and that's all coming out of whack at the moment. You know, the sea ice regime has gone through a phase shift in the last couple of years.

It's no longer behaving how it used to. No one quite knows what's going to happen to it but it'll be a lot less of it. But you also have them now being fished really hard. And the fishing is kind of managed. There's an organisation which is supposed to be in charge of it, but like all these organisations, they can't actually get their act together to do a number of the things they need to do.

As always with fishing, they're saying, well here are these rules saying this is how much you can catch. And of course these ships go down there and they catch much more than that, oh whoops, we've doubled our catch over what it was supposed to be, but we'll stop now. They're catching, there's bycatch, so they're killing whales and things at the same time.

But, it's the thing about this kind of, this incredibly important animal, which has these multiple pressures coming to bear on it at once. There's a lot of krill, they're not going to disappear tomorrow, they're reasonably adaptable and intelligent animals in lots of ways, but they are under a big pressure.

And you know you talk to the scientist and they say, look, if it changes it could change very very fast. But I mean, Emperor Penguins are done by the sound of it. It sounds like Emperor Penguins are just gone with the change in the sea ice.

There won't be any more Emperor Penguins by the end of the century.

[00:31:00] Tishiko King: And I was there last year, and it's actually really crazy how under threat our polar ecosystems are. And you're right, like that is the start of our food webs. That has so many cascading impacts, and we're talking about oceans.

You know, there are song lines that connect us all down there. That connectivity and continuity of the oceans is, why it's so important. Even their landforms, like there's algae growing on top of ice because it's warming up there. Talking about polewards, like there is seawater coming under the land mass of Antarctica that's eroding from the inside.

And so I saw these ice sheets fall down, which is what's creating, you know, sea levels to rise. And this is all happening because our planet is warming.

[00:31:46] Maria Byrne: We've got a phenomena called polar amplification. And this is where scientists really got quite a shock because the models we understood, that the sea ice – understood how to some extent, how the poles were acidifying and warming.

But the thing about the poles is the ice sheets, the sea ice reflects the heat back to space. And that keeps the poles cooler. As soon as that ice is gone, you now have a situation where the ice is no longer bouncing the heat back. The sea is now taking it because the sea is there.

And so this polar amplification has surprised the hell out of scientists. The poles are warming so fast now because that bouncing back of heat is now reduced significantly. The Arctic is probably going to be ice free by 2030. Arctic, not Antarctica. The Arctic is the one that's in worse shape.

Antarctica has been hard, because it's isolated by the circumpolar current, has been somewhat sheltered. But like Tish says, the ice is melting from underneath. And that was another aspect of the change in Antarctica that scientists were not cognisant of because it was happening underneath and not from the surface.

So between the lack of the heat going back into space and melting from the underneath and it's, we're really, really are in uncertain times with respect to Antarctica. The Arctic is there, a lot of eyes on it and it's, it's attached to continents like the North. The North Pacific and the North Atlantic parts of the Arctic are associated with the European continent and the Asian continent.

 Antarctica has been on its own, and so they thought it was sort of buffered, but it's now changing so fast. And talk about the krill, the krill depend on their larval stages, are so clever, so clever. They've so evolved to use the sea algae under the sea ice. And those are the babies. So if the sea ice is gone, there'll be no algae for those baby krill to eat, so the population will start crashing.

[00:33:56] James Bradley: Yeah, I mean their life cycle is tied to the movement of the ice. Really, that kind of heartbeat of the ice going in and out is what the krill kind of live on. But I mean, even in the time I've been writing this book, when I was first working seriously on it.

There's kind of two bits to Antarctica, there's the west which sits in, which is kind of sitting in the water, in a basin of water, and that's the bit that, we know melt, melted in the last glacial. And there's east Antarctica, which actually has most of the ice, but it's up on land, so even four or five years ago, people were quite clear that East Antarctica wasn't going to melt, it's going to be okay, and in the time it's taken me to write this book, we've moved to East Antarctica is destabilising and melting.

 It is happening so fast, and things are changing so incredibly fast. I mean, one of the things I write about in the book is that one of the things we didn't know was whether West Antarctica melted in the last interglacial. So whether the last time there was a warm period like this, and there was much higher sea levels, that was because of West Antarctica.

And a group of scientists, Australian scientists, in fact, mostly but essentially they looked at a series of studies about iceberg deposits on the bottom of the sea. And what became really clear is that, yeah, West Antarctica did melt, it melted entirely, using these various lines of evidence.

What they also found was that it wasn't like the planet warmed up and the ice slowly melted. It's like the planet warmed up a bit and the whole thing went. And these scientists say, well, we are past that tipping point.

West Antarctica is melting, and once it goes into that phase, it will continue melting. Now the one, one glimmer of good news in that is that they said these tipping points seem to be like that. So you'll get massive ice loss for maybe six or seven hundred years, and then it will slow down for a little while. Which weirdly, I mean, that might mean the difference between over the next six or seven hundred years, sea levels going up 10 meters and going up 20, it's not an insignificant thing, but yeah, I mean you asked what changed while I was writing the book.

I actually found writing the Antarctica stuff really interesting. There's something about taking on board how much of the stuff around sea level rise and that collapse is now completely unstoppable and within our lifetimes.

Like you kind of go, oh, I understand it. And then it's like, gosh, I can't even hold that in my head. But the one thing I thought was really interesting is almost every single scientist I spoke to, when you turn the mic, you know, when you turn the thing off, they'll say, the really big thing is sea level rise.

They're all obsessed with sea level rise which I thought was really interesting, because it's one of those things that's not actually discussed very much.

[00:36:10] Tishiko King: And it's my lived reality. My community, I just got back from the Torres Straits, and they've asked us to relocate. And I think that is something that we need to reflect on because my communities don't even contribute to our global emissions, yet we're on the front lines of being impacted first and worst, and we know what we need to do.

We need to keep up, we need to stop our planet from warming, and that's keeping all fossil fuels in the ground.

[00:36:36] Audience Member 1: James, I just wanted to ask you about something that you said earlier with respect to kind of the way I think that this idea that 70 percent of global emissions comes from corporations is a statistic you hear cited a lot.

And what you said about kind of implicating corporations rather than, I guess, kind of the rich Western, white consumers like myself who drive the demand for the overconsumption they provide and if you had any thoughts on whether we've gone too far in putting that blame on corporations at the expense of recognising the role of the consumer, I guess.

[00:37:09] James Bradley: I don't think you can blame corporations too much. I think what I'd probably say is people worry about what they can do as consumers. So if you, anyone who works in climate stuff will say, you talk to people and you say, what do you, what can you do about climate change? And they'll say, well, I can drive an electric car, I can recycle my stuff, I can not fly in a plane and those are all fantastic things to do.

But the issues are actually big kind of issues. I guess the way you want to push it back to corporations is for two reasons. One is because it reminds people that, you know, you need to be thinking about what you do as a citizen, not just what you do as a consumer. But also that the reality is we live in a society where the power of business is almost untrammeled. Look, I agree with you. I'm not trying to let consumers off the hook by any means, the patterns of consumption that exist, I mean, they are the issue. But those patterns of consumption have been created by a kind of system of, just look at the, changes over the last ten years, the degree, or the last twenty years, the degrees to which we have seen the quite systematic breakdown of almost all forms of community, the kind of atomisation of us ,so we sit in our houses staring at our phones, ordering food online, all of those things where people gathered and did things have been broken down.

They're all now facilitated by your phone, which is, shifting data and shifting value up to these giant corporations. It's about a kind of transfer to a kind of completely capitalised, completely, atomised kind of society, and that kind of quite deliberate assault on all kinds of communality, all kinds of gathering, all kinds of that kind of thing.

And that's why one of the things you can say, like, I'm sure you two would say the same things, but one of the ways you push back against this thing is actually about building connections with people around you, building organisations, learning to work with people. The amount of time people spend with each other now has massively decreased because they're all sitting there.

I mean, I'm just as bad as anyone staring at my phone rather than talking to people next to me.

[00:39:02] Tishiko King: Can I quickly add something? I was just thinking as that question is that corporations made us feel guilty by bringing out their stupid carbon credit calculator and they put it on the individual and so how we make them accountable is yes, like you said we can all change the way we move, do, have these incentives but we need systemic reform.

Corporations are getting away with this because our laws allow them to. And so a big part of that.

[00:39:35] Helen Sullivan: Our subsidies allow them to as well.

[00:39:37] James Bradley: I was trying to say you're saying it much better.

[00:39:40] Tishiko King: And I'm just thinking right now, uh, there's a lot of work going behind our EPBC Act. And a lot of reform needs that to strengthen because like our climate minister is going really hard about, you know, being progressive, but then our environmental portfolio is the one that's approving the minds.

And so we need systemic reform and for real systemic reform in this country, we need bipartisanship. And so I think that's something where if, like, you want to talk about how you get changes like go down to your local MP and do something about it.

[00:40:12] Maria Byrne: There's some dependence on climate fatigue. We've been campaigning for decades now, and we're all kind of exhausted. When we thought we might see some advance, then we had this absolute rubbish that we had as a government for – we have lost 20 years in our climate action.

And the trouble is now, people are saying, just like with the fact that the coral bleaching has not been well covered in the media here. It's almost as if there's an attitude now, well I can't do anything about it. I'm getting a little bit complacent. Oh, it's bleached again. And I think the real trouble is that since COVID, we're all in our little cubby holes, that collective action has actually suffered.

And our politicians are not getting the collective message. They will only listen to a collective message if it's going to affect their position in Parliament. And I think this is where we, and I totally agree, we do have to make sure that we do stay active. I mean, I get exhausted myself.

Do I want to write another letter? I don't know if I do or not. But I think we just can't let it go. And that's what the corporations would like us to do, let it go, be exhausted, we can't do anything about it, so move on.

[00:41:30] Helen Sullivan: And think of our individual, yeah, sort of think of ourselves as individual consumers instead of as communities of people. I mean I think that last week something came out to say that I think it's 80 percent of the emissions in the last few years came from 70 companies. It's oil and fossil fuels, a lot of them are state owned. It's not people, like we consume what they produce, but these are the companies, they have the profits.

But someone has asked whether there's a story or an animal or a memory that any of you kind of return to when times are dark and that you remember of something that changed or just something that you like looking at and that kind of makes you forget things for a while that you think is very amazing.

[00:42:09] Maria Byrne: Well I always look at nature, and there's still lots of beautiful nature.

I was swimming with dolphins last week in Jervis Bay. I mean, how good is that? So you can never forget that there's some wonderful nature out there to always connect with the sea and there's positives. And that's the very reason why you're in this game in the first place. You want to protect it. So it just is reinforcing something of high value that you want to protect by getting out, even standing at the beach, looking out at the water.

 It will encourage you to write your letters to the minister, go to your super fund, defest. So that's the positivity.

[00:42:47] Tishiko King: I probably say, I will always look and connect to the ocean. That's actually what is like my definitely healing power.

I feel I have salt water that pumps in my veins and I think that's just a deep connection of where I come from. But I think that's what keeps me going. There is just so much that is happening that we have to do, like the decisions we make today for a better tomorrow. Like we cannot like you just saying like you're tired from writing letters.

My old people are tired too. It's our inherent responsibility and we cannot leave that for our younger generation. Like, that is just bad passing, that's a bad way, and so, for me, it's like there's no choice, and so I have to, because this is life or death for me. But I think it's what, keeps it going is people, people power, we've seen it work before, and when we come together, we stand strong, and talking about community, I think it's one thing that Australians are good at, in the face of adversity, we do come together.

Whether that's floods, whether that's fires, I, we've actually Australians all come together and help each other when we really, really need it. And I think this is where, for me, as a proud Kulkalaig woman, like from the Torres Straits, is like how climate justice vastly differents to climate action. How 1.5 degrees could mean a fighting chance for my communities, but two degrees can meet the end.

So you wield the weapons that can make us or sell us out. So we have to do this. Keep going for that.

[00:44:23] Helen Sullivan: We'll wrap up on that very strong note.

And that is the end of tonight's panel. Thank you all very much for attending and thank you for your great questions. This has been Sydney Ideas. I'm Helen Sullivan. Have a great night.

[00:44:39] Alex Siegers (Podcast host): Thanks for listening to the Sydney Ideas podcast. For more links, resources, or the transcript, head to the Sydney Ideas website or subscribe to Sydney Ideas using your favourite podcast app.


James Bradley is an author and critic. His books include Deep Water (2024), the novels Wrack (1997), The Deep Field (1999), The Resurrectionist (2006), Clade (2015) and Ghost Species (2020), a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus (1994) and The Penguin Book of the Ocean. His books have won or been shortlisted for many major Australian and international literary awards, and in 2012 he won the Pascall Prize for Australia’s Critic of the Year. His essays and articles have appeared in The MonthlyThe GuardianSydney Review of BooksMeanjinGriffith ReviewCosmosLos Angeles Review of Books and more. 

James is an Honorary Associate of the Sydney Environment Institute.

Maria Byrne is Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Sydney. Her research on the impacts of environmental stressors on marine species with a focus on the impacts of climate change across latitudes is generating crucial findings on species’ vulnerabilities and resilience for management and conservation. The overarching goal is to determine the ecologically and economically important species that may be resilient to changing climate. Her research on the complex interactions between stressors across life stages and species groups is influential. Recent research on the impacts of marine heatwaves shows that warming is the contemporary stressor of greatest concern, including work with the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce and investigation of species’ poleward range extension.

Maria is world expert on echinoderms (sea urchins, the crown of thorns starfish, beche de mer sea cucumbers) and her research on these species is providing key findings to address the challenge for their management. In long standing research her work on closely related species with contrasting modes of development is providing breakthroughs on the molecular mechanisms underlying developmental change, generation of evolutionary novelty and speciation in the sea.

Tishiko King is a proud Kulkalaig woman from the Island of Masig and Badugal of Themu Clan in the Torres Straits and is a Ocean & Climate Advocate. In addition to her advocacy in climate, Tish works with the Philanthropic sector to redistribute wealth back into First Nations communities for economic justice and self-determination. Based in Naarm/Melbourne, Tish is spirited about sharing culture and amplifying social inequality and the rights of First Nations people. With studies in Ocean Science, lived experiences in the mineral and exploration industry, Tish continues to be a part of grassroots organisations, supporting the Our Islands Our Home campaign led by Torres Strait Island people and plays a role in advocating for Torres Strait Island Climate Justice.

Collaboratively working with like minded folks to shift the dial, Tish is a member of the Australian Museum Climate Solutions Centre Advisory Group and current Board Director for Divers for Climate.

Helen's writing has appeared in the New Yorker, London Review of Books, New York Times and the Guardian, where she is a reporter on the international desk, and columnist on the weird animal desk. She has been shortlisted for the Bragg Prize for Science Writing three times and her work has appeared in four of the Best Australian Science Writing anthologies. In 2023 she profiled Helen Garner for the New Yorker. She is writing a memoir for Scribner Australia.

Header image: Photo of panel (Helen Sullivan, James Bradley, Maria Byrne, Tishiko King). Credit Nicola Bailey.