Laws of Nature

IT IS DEATH THAT GIVES OUR LIFE MEASURE, and it takes a tree a very long time to die. Perhaps that’s what makes them such great ancestors. With their intricate fungal root networks, many trees live sophisticated communal lives. Older trees share their liquid sugar with young saplings. Wisdom about their home environment is passed on through an earthy knot of nodes and mycorrhizae. And in their long, final moments, they bequeath what resources they still have to their healthier neighbours.

‘The universe is a continuous web,’ wrote poet Stanley Kunitz. ‘Touch it at any point and the whole web quivers.’ It is this interconnectedness that Hollie Kerwin and her team at Environmental Justice Australia are shining a light on; imploring federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek to protect thousands of nationally significant living wonders currently threatened by a slew of mining, coal and gas projects pending approval.

Koalas and platypuses. Green turtles, dugongs and bilbies. Possums and parrots. And yes, big old trees. Also the Grampians. The Tarkine. The Reef. Kakadu. ‘These places are alive on their own terms, and they’re also alive as part of the world that we inhabit, the living system we’re a part of,’ says Hollie. Our government is legally obliged to protect these animals, plants and places from harm, but they have never had to take into account the biggest threat of all – climate change.

From her home in Melbourne, Hollie talks to me about the law in a way that leaves me feeling encouraged this preposterous fact might soon be recognised as just that. ‘Law can change lives in incremental ways. Over time, ideas about what’s reasonable or acceptable gain authority and become entrenched. Sometimes, they’re like blast-off moments, where major things happen.’ In her measured way, she seems optimistic that if we aren’t on the cusp of a blast-off moment right now, eventual change is inevitable when you play the rules of the law right.

Details from Hollie’s home on Boon wurrung and Wurundjeri Country. Photo: Emma Byrnes.

In this case, Environmental Justice Australia, on behalf of their client the Environment Council of Central Queensland, are using a clause from the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act that until now has gone largely overlooked. It says if there’s substantial new information about the environmental harm a new gas or coal proposal can cause, the minister needs to reconsider their approval.

To be clear, they’re not suing the government, but asking them to reassess the environmental risks based on two novel arguments. The first comes back to that quivering web, because ‘the extraction of fossil fuels from one place contributes to climate change, and this hurts ecosystems not just in the area surrounding the mining site, but everywhere’.

The second argument relies on new information that only exists because of the Black Summer bushfires in 2019 and 2020. Like the vivid green sprouts shooting from trunks and branches of charred eucalyptus trees, detailed fire maps now exist – demonstrating the devastating impact of climate-fuelled bushfires on land, animals and living cultural heritage sites of First Nations Peoples. In presenting Plibersek with these maps, as well as 3000 documents of scientific evidence about our most vulnerable species and ecosystems, the aim, says Hollie, is to ‘open the door and ask the minister, on the basis of all of that evidence, to walk through it’.

While humans may not be on a vulnerable species list, each of us is a vital thread in this entangled world. Our DNA, our relational networks and our social systems interlace with every other living thing in a million subtle ways. To hear Hollie talk of this interconnectedness is to see how her life and work come together. ‘When my daughter was born, my partner wrote this on this scrap of paper: “Your child is already an incredibly resilient being”, which we then put above her bed.’ But to do this work is to look climate change in the eye and 127 Laws of Nature glimpse all the possible fragile futures. ‘I had to come to grips with that. And then as a lawyer I had to intellectualise it and move from the personal impact of that information into action.’

Hollie is fairly new to climate litigation, having dedicated her career before this to human rights law. She has two young children, and I can’t help but ask her if this recent pivot has anything to do with being a parent. But her reflections on legacy have more to do with the bigger picture. ‘The law that is created is often a result of permutations that have built up over time,’ she says. While catalytic moments in a judgment may look radical from the outside, ‘when you look, you can see the hands and thoughts and stories of so many people, which have infused the movement of the law to this point’.

With the stroke of a pen, our environment minister can make the future of Australia’s living wonders much safer – or catastrophically worse. It’s high stakes, when you think about how much is on the line. But again, Hollie’s steady optimism comes through. ‘People aren’t as rigid as you think. There’s always the potential to change someone’s mind. And there’s always the flexibility inside a person to make a shift. You just need to make space for them to be better,’ she says.

Put this way, our legal system can sometimes feel abstract to our everyday lives, but Hollie is quick to point out it is completely entwined. ‘The court isn’t the first place that conversation happens, and it’s not the last place either.’ In this way, ‘the law doesn’t just exist in the courtroom or the rulebook, the law exists out in the world, where statements and rules kind of run out and people in communities come together to take the next step, and judgment begins anew.’

Details from Hollie’s home on Boon wurrung and Wurundjeri Country. Photo: Emma Byrnes.

Regardless of the decision currently sitting with the environment minister, something has been set in motion, and what happens next will ultimately be about where we pick up the conversation Hollie and her team have started for us. ‘We’re standing in a moment of power. Things can change and they have to change. It’s complex, because it comes down to the individual decisions of so many people.’

Again, a pattern of entanglement emerges here, one that is essential and provokes Hollie’s work. It shows up in her moments of rest too, something she’s trying to create more space for while she waits for the minister’s response. She tells me about a bushy place in South Gippsland where she and her family like to swim. ‘Being there in that water, I really feel my size, I’m just one tiny bit. But I’m alive, and I can do things. We all have that power.’ 

Groundswell, a giving platform for climate action, is Wonderground’s Community Partner. In each issue, we profile one of the groups supported through their grant-making process.

Photography by Emma Byrnes