A Lecture About The Weather for the Smooth Handfish
A lecture about the weather in honour of the smooth handfish
I don’t write about extinction because I only have time to write about weather. The fact of the fact of the matter is the smooth handfish’s extinction is a symptom of the widespread disrespect for the wanton variability of weather. I write about the weather because I’m most interested in knowing more about human attempts to control it: control with infrastructure and other kinds of powerful technologies. Related to this point, the questions I want to ask in this lecture are: if we are gathered to collectively mourn this fish, what are we being asked to do? And are we even capable of doing it?
PART 1: WILD WEATHER
To mourn with an open heart and tumultuous guts is to surrender to loss, to look at it, identify it and squarely recognise it has gone. To mourn is to surrender control of your life to the weather. I can’t honestly access the emotions required to mourn the smooth handfish’s extinction, possibly because it was gone before I ever knew it existed. But I do wonder if I am capable of the surrender required for mourning at all? If I get annoyed at the most mild variations in temperature and wish it were warmer-cooler-wetter-dryer, how can I mourn with the abandon called for? These are my questions, but they are also my points.
I’m aware, I guess, that this idea of surrendering to worldly weathers can mean many things not all of which are good. It can mean something profound and beautiful or it can mean something violent and coersive. Regarding mourning the smooth handfish, I am literally talking about surrendering to the variability of the weather. The extractive industries and associated mode of economic development that are at the heart of climate change, can all be understood as attempts to control the weather. But it is the particular kind of control exerted over the weather—roads open at all costs to get the workers to work and the machines turning—that is the problem. If we kept ourselves warm and dry and yet surrendered some control of the operation of things over to the weather, I reckon. And I reckon if we did things would be better and maybe we wouldn’t be mourning the smooth handfish today.
PART 2 COERSIVE CONTROL:
I first learned about coersive control while reading Jess Hill’s book See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse. I’ve started realising that the logic of coercion is everywhere, and goes well beyond the domestic. For example, the other week I accidentally did one third of a course on how to commodify my research. I research the weather. Given it is my responsibility as an academic to produce original knowledge and it is a fact that the weather has already been successfully commodified in a variety of weather management technologies and products—window, wind sock, windscreen wiper, windcheater, windsurfer and so on—you may think I have missed the boat on some opportunities in this regard. Lucky for me, though, commodifying the feeling of the wind in your hair is impossible. And the feeling of the wind in your hair is what I’m going to spend the rest of my life researching.
Overall the course went for six days and was free but I only last two. But I lasted long enough to learn the secret of good sales which is this (and you can have it for free): if you coerce people into thinking they want something and manipulate people into acting upon that want you can sell anything. I was shocked I guess because there was no accountability to anything other than the successful sale. Social justice was fine (like giving money to Koalas while buying a couch, for example) as long as it contributed to the sale. Stop any social or environmental justice project as soon as it impacts the bottom line.
WATERFALL AS DRAIN:
In the peak of the drought last year I met a hydroecologist at a private nature reserve. It was before the rainforest burnt in bushfires. He was a guy who knew how bad things were when it comes to water. He lived on the edge of these tablelands because he reckoned this is where the water will be once the whole continent had dried up. Before I moved to Armidale I didn’t really realise how most of the inland waterways in Australia were polluted. When I’d travelled to the Murray Darling, or Menindee lakes there never was enough water for good swimming, but I didn’t think about how it was related to all the industrial uses of water. But really, all water in Australia is treated as a question of drainage and storage. If we treat water as something to store or to drain, rather than as the life of the world, all waterfalls are stormwater drains, all lakes and oceans are tailings ponds. The smooth handfish was living in Australia’s tailings pond. And now it’s dead.
Nimbyism has a bad name. In the fullness of time, nimbyism will have a resurgence but the terms “not” and the “in and the “my” and the “backyard” will be better defined. I listened to a podcast about nimbyism by a moral philosopher who was defending it when I was gardening sometime last year. It was interesting, but she didn’t have a good understanding of class informing her defence. I kept waiting for her say it: nimbyism is problematic because generally the nimbyists are white, privileged and can afford to mount a fight. They are criticised because, most of the time, NIMBYs were OK with the garbage dump, power station, road being in someone else’s backyard.
I woke at 1.20am the other night and couldn’t get back to sleep. My backyard was illuminated by the full moon. I came across a tweet about the YIMBY
YIMBY – Yes in my Back Yard is the pro-development version, inviting things in backyards. The planet is my backyard, the smooth handfish was in it. It’s all in it. Your shitty old fence doesn’t keep whatever you pour on your lawn from spilling down the drain into the waterways and out to sea into the backyard of the smooth handfish.
PART 5: CHANGE IS SLOW
This is a video of me sitting with my son when he was 2 and a bit looking at a storm and talking about it. It is an emergency but we can’t act like it is; emergency logics favour the police and military. Emergency logics favour coercion and control. The crisis is here and we have to process it, step by step; we have to respond in ways that don’t make it worse. Some of this involves surrender, grief, resistance, mourning, feel the wind in your hair, and making it possible for others to do that too.
 Image of the corners of Erskine and Marsh streets in Armidale (Anaiwan Country)  Image of Lyle Lanley: the iconic shonky monorail salesman from The Simpsons  Hill, Jess. See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse (Black Inc.: Melbourne, 2019)  Image of Gara Gorge on Anaiwan and Gumabagirr Country, now commonly referred to as Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, NSW.  Image of My Backyard  https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/philosopherszone/backyard-ethics:-defending-the-nimby/10577658  https://twitter.com/Evict_Twit_ter/status/1311709276251934721  Video of a storm over Earlwood Farm, Sydney in early 2017