Recorded at the Hallstrom Theatre at the Australian Museum on 1 November 2018

Environmental martyrs put their bodies and lives on the line, risking imprisonment, violence or burial in a shallow grave in the dead of night. Some activists remain anonymous, while others gain posthumous fame and power, their deaths becoming a rallying call for others to join the cause.

Rob Nixon, Professor in Humanities and Environment at Princeton University, and author of the award-winning Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, explores the surge in environmental martyrdom around the world over timber, water, land and mineral rights. Martyrdom is direct action in extremis, he says. But why are so many people sacrificing their lives? And what is the relationship between the fallen martyr and the felled tree?

Sue Saxon: Good evening, and welcome to the Australian Museum. My name is Sue, and I'm a creative producer here at the Australian Museum. I'd like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Australian Museum stands, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and future. And welcome, everyone, to the final presentation in our first, landmark Human Nature Lecture Series, a collaboration of four major universities with the Australian Museum and with academics from around Australia and the world, who are leaders in the environmental humanities.

The Australian Museum's collection provides a record of the environmental and cultural histories and diversities of the Australian and Pacific regions. Together with its ongoing research, the museum informs and promotes understanding of some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges in our region, including the loss of biodiversity, a changing climate, and the assertion of cultural identity.

So in a sense the past meets the future at the Australian Museum, where our understanding is inspired by the research of our scientists and cultural specialists, by our exhibitions like the fabulous new Whales | Tohora show, and by events like this Human Nature Lecture Series, through which we strive to investigate and communicate the relationship between people, culture, and the natural environment.

Tonight's lecture, following the event, will also be available via the AM Live podcast, and we'll also be giving you a sneak preview of the 2019 series, in which we welcome our fifth collaborator, the University of Wollongong. So we'll talk to you about that at the conclusion of tonight's session, but for now, to introduce our very special guest this evening, I hand over to Judy Motion, Professor of Communication in the UNSW Environmental Humanities. Judy.

Judy Motion: Good evening, everyone. I'd also like to begin by acknowledging and paying respect to the Traditional Owners and Custodians of this land, sky, and waterway. We pay respect to elders past and present, and extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are present here today. We thank you.

It is an absolute pleasure to welcome and introduce Professor Rob Nixon, who is a leading influential figure in the environmental humanities. He's internationally renowned for opening up and reconfiguring our notions of social and environmental justice.

Rob Nixon holds the Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Family Professorship in Humanities and Environment at Princeton University. He is the author of four books, most recently, Dreambirds: The Natural History of a Fantasy, and the one you're probably most familiar with, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, which has won numerous awards including the American Book Award and the 2012 Sprout Prize from the International Studies Association for the best book in environmental studies.

Professor Nixon writes frequently for the New York Times. His writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, The Guardian, The Nation, London Review of Books, The Village Voice, and the list goes on.

Many of you will be familiar with Professor Nixon's work on slow violence, emphasising the need to recognise the gradual and often invisible ways that environmental crises are playing out. His focus on temporal and spatial concerns of environmental and social justice creates spaces for diverse voices to be heard, and reminds us that we need to advance our ways of noticing and attending to these issues; to pay attention to the less immediate, the less spectacular.

He positions activists' storytelling and action at the heart of our creative responses for undoing injustice. Nixon's thought-provoking work is particularly focused on the relationship between accelerating rates of environmental change and rising rates of economic inequality.

He is concerned with the disparities between how the rich and the poor experience climate change, how they suffer unequal exposure, and the risks of a rapidly changing planet. Such issues, he believes, demand imaginative, ethical, technological and political responses. Please give a very warm welcome to Professor Rob Nixon, whose talk tonight is entitled, Environmental Martyrdom and the Fate of the Forests.

Rob Nixon: Thank you, Judy, so much. Judy Motion has done the heavy lifting to get me here, and thanks, too, to Sue for making me feel so welcome, and to all the institutions: University of New South Wales, Macquarie, University of Western Sydney, University of Sydney and of course the Museum.

I am honoured to be part of this wonderful series. I've followed it and was very excited to be included. On a more personal note, I wanted to express my delight that I was able to visit Sydney at a time when my sister, who's lived in Epping for many decades with her partner got married, so they're wife and wife as of this week. And so a shout-out to Ruth Orchison and Carol Boland, and to everybody who's been able to get married this past year and into the future—and to everybody who voted in the referendum in order to bring Australia up to speed.

So I'm going to be talking today about environmental martyrdom and the fate of the forest, and there are five questions that animate the talk. The first is what is the relationship between the figure of the environmental martyr, the sacrificial figure of the environmental martyr, and the environmental sacrifice zones that have proliferated under neoliberal globalisation. And by sacrifice zones I mean those virtual set asides of concentrated violence and imposed lawlessness in which all our lives are implicated.

The second question is how does a corpse become an environmental body, what are the complex cultural and political processes whereby that metamorphosis takes place? The third animating question is what is the relationship between environmental martyr and the movement. And if we think of martyrdom more broadly, we think of figures like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Emily Davison—the British suffragette who threw herself under the king's horses—what is the relationship in each case between the iconic figure of the martyr and a more generalised suffering or a more generalised affliction?

The fourth question is how does the environmental martyr mediate between the living and the dead, and also mediate between the human and the more than human—the human and the ecological, if you like.

And finally I wanted to think a little bit about the very deep, long tradition that spans centuries and many cultures of conceiving of humans as trees and conceiving of trees as human. We're both erect, often long-living social beings. And in particular in relation to environmental martyrdom, I want to ask, what is the relationship between the fallen martyr and the felled tree?

I want to dedicate the talk today to the memory of Berta Cáceres, Honduran environmental activist, defender of rivers and forests, from the Lenca tribe in Honduras, who was a winner of the premier environmental prize, the Goldman Prize, in 2015, and was assassinated six months later after a successful campaign to protect the river and the forest against hydroelectric dams.

So why forests? We're currently losing forests, a forest area the size of Italy every year. There is some regrowth—as people urbanise in North America and parts of Latin America there is some return of forests—but the overall pace is one of steep decline. And forests are significant for more reasons than I can lay out in a brief talk. Though one of the reasons is that they are responsible, as a carbon sink, for 30% of all terrestrial absorption of CO2 occurs in the forests. Moreover, if we take a different angle on it, 18% of all CO2 emissions result from the felling and burning of forests, which is the equivalent to the emissions that come from the entire transportation sector—so cars, trucks, trains, planes, ships. So it's an area where if we can even slow the rate of deforestation we can make an enormous difference in terms of decelerating climate change.

So in thinking about these questions, I was also concerned about the concentration of environmental martyrs in what we might call the environmental martyr belt, the tropical countries that girdle the midriff of the globe. So we can see here countries like Honduras, Colombia, Brazil, Congo, India, Indonesia, Philippines, and so forth. So there's been a very, very high concentration of assassination of activists, particularly forest activists but also mining activists in these areas.

And I was beginning to think that a purely secular approach was insufficient, given the religious and cosmological complexity of these areas. And so I was trying to articulate the question of neoliberalism as a global system to questions of spirituality and how these play out both in activist movements and also in the artwork associated with them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is an African American writer, has a quote that I think is quite resonant for this context: 'Racism is a visceral experience; it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land with great violence upon the body.'

And Coates is talking here specifically about the Black Lives Matter movement, but I think his words also resonate for the indigenous struggles and the struggles of micro-minorities in these heavily forested societies in the tropics. And I think it also speaks more broadly to the place of the arts and the humanities in relation to the life sciences and the social sciences. How can we give those graphs and charts and regressions, how can give them a bodily gravity and bring them into the realm of emotional experience?

I should say at the outset that I'm just pulling on one thread with these forest struggles, and Audre Lorde, almost 50 years ago, an African American activist and writer said, 'There's no such thing as a single-issue cause because we do not live single-issue lives.' And so the fate of the forest is inseparable, really, from struggles for land rights, struggles for water security, food security and so on. They're very entangled conflicts.

So as I just suggested, I am interested in the interface between the systemic and the spiritual—what you might call neoliberalism and the numinous. And how can we think about systems and also think about the cosmologies at the same time—economic systems and cosmologies. And one of the things that prompted me to start reflecting on this was a flurry of films about environmental martyrs. Chico Mendes, who many of you may know was assassinated in the late '80s in Brazil, Martyr of the Amazon; Martirio, which is a recent Brazilian film on the genocide against the Guarani in Brazil in the '80s. Ken Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian activist, really the first prominent African environmental writer, who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995 for leading the protest against Shell and the despoilation of the Niger delta.

And Jurin Ratchapol is a defender of mangrove forests in Thailand. Both Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ratchapol were involved in the defence of mangrove forest in delta regions. So the mangrove forests were constitutive, really, on the cultural survival of both of these communities. And there are some very strong analogies between their activism.

I started out by mentioning Berta Cáceres. There's a film, Guardians of the River on the struggle of her and her Lenca people to defend the forested river that is sacred to them. And then Toxic Amazon: Fighting for the Rainforest Can Still Get You Killed focuses on a couple, Maria Santo and José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, who were agro-foresters living off Brazil nuts, and one of their ambitions was to demonstrate that they could live off one Brazil nut tree, an enormous Brazil nut tree, which they did, and they were trying to model for others sustainable livelihoods in the Amazon. And way they paired up was when they encountered or heard of illegal logging José Cláudio would accost the loggers and Maria would take the photographs. And the film is a record of their activism and life and ultimately their assassination.

On the other side of the Earth there's a Cambodian activist called Chut Wutty, who took it upon himself also to document the illegal logging in Prey Lang Forest, a major forest in Cambodia. And he, too, thought to create as textured a photographic record as he could of this process. And so one of the things you see in the Brazilian case, in Cambodia and Honduras, is that very often the people who are meant to uphold the law are the breakers of the law, and the people who are seen as, treated as illegal activists are those who are trying to, in the capacity as citizens, actually implement existing laws that have become nominal in terms of the protection of the forest.

So a film was made, I am Chut Wutty, With the Forest we Live, Without the Forest we Die, and the focus of this film is resin collection, so that traditionally the indigenous communities in the Prey Lang forest would build small fires in the resin trees, collect resin, and use the income from that to supplement their bush tucker. And so the felling of the resin trees interrupted that sustainable livelihood of many generations.

So I said at the outset that one of the things that I think the arts and environmental humanities does is give us an embodied encounter with so many of these globalised statistics that can otherwise seem very abstract. And if we step back a little bit from environmental martyrdom and think about martyrdom more broadly, and the kinds of scripts that we associate with martyrdom, one of the resonant figures is Simone Weil, who fled France in World War Two to England and starved herself to death. She basically tried to align her food intake with the intake of partisans in France fighting fascism. And so there's a complex statement that she made that I wanted to reflect on briefly, which is 'Death is the most precious thing that has been given to man. The supreme impiety is to make bad use of it.' And what she's talking about here, she's not advocating for martyrdom but how do you ensure, when you're pushed into a state of extremity, that the unjust death is not a meaningless death? In other words, in conditions of involuntary martyrdom, what kind of leverage can you get for a cause out of those circumstances?

And so if that's useful to think about different tempos of martyrdom here, in Simone Weil's case you have starvation, in the case of Guantanamo prisoners you have starvation, Bobby Sands and the IRA—one of the things about an attenuated death is that it provides a media script, a public narrative, which is why you have, say, force-feeding in Guantanamo because that elongated storyline of suffering towards death provides a traction for the cause of the martyr.

Similarly, when the Narmada River was logged, dams were starting to be planned on the Narmada River in India, various villages formed what they called 'martyr squads', or self-drowning teams, because entire villages and temples were being drowned and the surrounding forestland, and people committed themselves to remaining in the river until the dams flooded their villages.

So one of the things that recurs across struggles that have involved martyrdom is accusations that the leaders in question have a martyr complex. We see this with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many others, even Nelson Mandela. The idea that there's something grandiose, that the person in question, the political leader, is in some ways in love with death. And so these leaders who have been politically cornered by unrelenting authorities have repeatedly had to disavow the idea that they're voluntary martyrs, that they're embracing martyrdom. Gandhi put it this way: 'Let us all be brave enough to die the death of a martyr, but let no one lust for martyrdom.'

In a similar vein, Chico Mendes, defender of rubber tappers and indigenous rights in Amazon, 'I don't want anybody getting killed. There's no point in me or any of my colleagues dying. I don't think that dead bodies solve anything, and I know that if that's the way things go, this place will become an inferno. I don't believe in bodies.'

So one facet of this is that typically these environmental martyrs anticipate their death, in other words they live in a kind of liminal state of their final time on Earth, and almost posthumously aware that they will be perceived as emblematic after their death. So Ken Saro-Wiwa was warning the authorities and saying, 'I am more dangerous dead.' This was a couple of months before they executed him. And his son put it this way: 'My father hadn't been able to reach or influence a wider audience with his writing, but in dying for his people he scripted the most compelling story of his life.'

So martyrdom becomes a kind of an alternative script, an alternative writing, and the word 'martyr' is rooted in the Greek notion of witnessing. And so there's a double witnessing; there's the body that bears witness and there's the witnessing of the script. And the philosopher Costica Bradatan put it this way with regard to Socrates: 'Socrates may never have written a line but his death is one of the greatest philosophical bestsellers of all time.' So this idea of Socrates curating, if you like, the story of his death in advance.

So I mentioned at the outset that one of the animating ideas that got me thinking about this is the relationship between the exceptional iconic figure of the martyr and ordinary martyrdom. Six months before she was assassinated, when she was awarded the Goldman Prize, Berta Cáceres dedicated the prize in this way: 'I dedicate this prize to the river, to the forest, and to all the other martyrs.' And the syntax here is ambiguous. It's to all the other martyrs, the sense that there's a general martyrdom in this indigenous community, but also the river and the forest—to what extent do humans have a monopoly on martyrdom, and to what extent does martyrdom permeate into other life forms?

And this question of quotidian or ordinary or, paradoxically, unexceptional martyrdom permeates many different struggles. This is in the Philippines, a vigil for heroes and martyrs of the mining struggle; in Colombia local Environmental Week dedicated to the martyrs. I've seen El Salvadorian t-shirts: 'The environmental martyrs, those who die defending their people, are not dead.' And so there is, from one society to another, this ambiguity in terms of a relationship between the iconic figure and a broader movement among precarious communities.

In thinking about spiritual cosmologies in relation to neoliberal globalisation, one of the things that is striking is the persistence of the dead. The paradox of assassination without elimination. The anthropologist Anand Singh put it this way: 'The dead, too, are part of social worlds.' This is a vigil for somebody who was assassinated before Berta Cáceres. But 'the dead, too, are part of social worlds'. How do we include or exclude the dead from our idea of society?

John Berger, who spent most of his life in peasant communities in France, speaks in a very resonant way about these issues: 'The living reduce the dead to those who have lived, yet the dead already include the living in their own great collective. Until the dehumanisation of society by capitalism, all the living awaited the experience of the dead. It was their ultimate future. By themselves, the living were incomplete, thus living and dead were interdependent, always. Only a uniquely modern form of egoism has broken this interdependence, with disastrous results for the living, who now think of the dead as the eliminated.'

And I think a lot of the violence and the culture clash that occurs in these sacrifice zones, these global sacrifice zones, has at its root these different perceptions of the relationship between the living and the dead, for those who exist in cosmologies where the dead are not eliminated versus an extractivist economy for whom the dead are dead and not a pertinent presence in the ecosystems that are being raided.

Talking about Black Lives Matter, the American critic Kimberly Bain reflects thus: 'The dead are all around the living, not just the already dead but also the dying, the soon-to-be dead, the left-for-dead and the marked-for-death.' And so even in our biological lives we are situated in different ways in relation to the dead. Some of us are more proximate, some of us are more walled-off from the dead. And often it's a matter of class and privilege, but also of cosmology.

Looking through these films on environmental martyrdom, one of the most striking recurrent echoes across them is this idea of assassination in relation to proliferation. In the case of Chut Wutty and Cambodia, the film itself is called I am Chut Wutty, which became the rallying cry of the movement to prevent illegal deforestation in the Prey Lang Forest. And the idea was that when, from the part of the authorities, when they assassinated the highly visible leader, Chut Wutty, they would behead the movement and render it powerless. But instead people identified themselves with him, so that it became the political tactic of a reiterative identification with the figure of the martyr.

Similarly, in Honduras, here we have Berta Cáceres, and the incorporation of the dead into the community of the living, or the community of the living into the figure of the dead who is not eliminated. And again, you have this proliferation of identification across the indigenous communities. And when Berta Cáceres, although she was focusing on struggle in Honduras that affected most deeply and directly her Lenca people, her assassination reverberated across the Americas. This is a protest in Bogota, in Colombia. Siempre Viva, 'she lives on', Berta Cáceres. And what's interesting here is the use of the body as canvas, and quite often in a number of Latin American situations people would ink on the Virgin Mary, on the back, that was a place where sometimes the Virgin Mary would appear in ink. And so there's also in a sense a transubstantiation of Berta Cáceres through the religious cosmology into somebody who has an eternal presence. And as with Chut Wutty, here, 'Volveré y seré millones', 'We will become millions', this insistence on proliferation instead of elimination. This is El Salvadorians commemorating her death.

One of the reasons Berta Cáceres was assassinated was she was leading a movement that had successfully got the World Bank and a variety of other Japanese, Chinese banks to divest from a project that would have dammed the river and destroyed their lands and livelihood. And so it was particularly apposite to have this battle between remembrance and erasure played out on the walls of the World Bank. Here's a Lenca woman commemorating Berta Cáceres's death and the translation is 'She is present in the soul of our rivers and in the spirit of our birds'.

So if we think about assassination without elimination, we're also thinking about the relationship…the permeation of being between the human and the more-than-human, the belief that there are porous boundaries, not only between the living and the previously living or the dead, but also between the human and the more-than-human. And indeed, environmental activism I believe demands that we build bridges across cosmology, so we find these points of connection where these often micro-minorities, indigenous groups, can align themselves, even if only circumstantially, whether against mining companies or deforestation.

So at the outset when I was talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates and the weight of the graphs and the statistics on the body, one of the things that's very striking in the films and the artwork around deforestation is the intimacy between bark and skin. And some of this is presented in figuration and it's also there in the language as well. If we think in English for instance, we talk about the crown of the tree, the foot of the tree, the limbs of the tree, the girth of the tree, we talk about people as rooted or rootless. There's a lot of dead metaphors that have their origin in this connection between humans and trees.

This is Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent 18 months up a giant sequoia in Northern California in the late '90s. She writes very eloquently about her sense of entanglement with the tree. The intimacy…some dumb-arsed tabloid reporter went up there and said, 'How do you survive for 18 months without a boyfriend?' And she said, 'I embrace the tree.' And one of the things I should say about martyrdom is it's not only about assassination but also extreme suffering. In the case of Julia Butterfly Hill, the logging company flew helicopters in to try to blow her out. They blew her tent out and they tried to blow her out of the tree, she was 250 feet up.

But this issue of the relationship between skin and bark recurs again and again in these struggles. This is from the Chipko movement in India in the 1970s. It became a transnational movement in the end but it started with one village where the Indian government had sold off a forest to a sporting company—I think it was to make cricket bats or something—and the villagers, they didn't have title deed to the forest, but ancestrally for many hundreds, possibly thousands of years they had lived there. And the women in the village formed these circles, these protective rings, with their palms against the bark. And so one of the things you notice about this, and it's true of pretty much all the forest struggles, is tree-hugging is a little bit of a misnomer because it makes sense to have the tree at your back and to be interacting with those who are assaulting you or coming to fell the tree.

This is an image of José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, one of the agro-foresters who was assassinated in the Amazon, and this was an image taken about six months before he was killed. And there's something about the posture of pride and amazement. Many of you—I certainly do—recall encountering as a child a big tree that you couldn't get your body around. And there's the sense of the physicality of his relationship to the tree. This was the tree that sustained him for a year. But it's also in an anticipatory way, a prefigurative way, a posture of crucifixion, of I think sort of a physical, almost, recognition of the inevitability that the loggers were going to come for them.

So where do we take this? One of the things that I see over and over again is the relationship, the attempt to articulate small insurrections to large alliances. And if we look forward schematically to the year, say, 2050, it's projected that food demand will double, and if we double the crop land, particularly the sort of thing that's going on in the Amazon and Indonesia, where you have palm oil, soy, mega-ranches, if we double the crop land we will impact most directly tropical forest, and that in turn will have a snowballing impact on accelerating climate change. So there are definitely ways in which the yield gaps can be narrowed, and cropping efficiency, reducing waste, and dietary shifts, and already in many societies some of those dietary shifts are taking place, away from meat in particular.

So something that I see again and again in these anti-deforestation movements is articulated by the novelist Amitav Ghosh, when he says, 'How deeply mired we are in the Great Derangement. The conception of justice that excludes the claims of the non-human will be contested not in any human court but by the Earth itself.' So the sense that justice itself cannot be partitioned from the claims of the non-human, and that if we continue to think that way, the effects will rebound to our own disadvantage.

Different regions of the world have activists who've employed different strategies. Something that has been quite prominent in Southeast Asia have been the ecology monks. And so in a number of countries, Cambodia, Vietnam, Lao, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, monks try to slow deforestation by consecrating the trees, by inducting the trees into the monastic order. Here we have some ecology monks in Sri Lanka being confronted with the military, robing the tree. And so in a sense this upgrades the severity of the assault on the tree, so that the man wielding the chainsaw confronts the choice not just of felling a tree, but of beheading a martyr who is part of this religious community.

Now, in East Africa and Southern Africa, from the outside it would seem that environmentalism is primarily about protection of megafauna. But from the inside, if we look at the histories of African environmentalism, the central struggles have involved reforestation, the politics of trees in relation to the politics of topsoil retention, the politics of water. And trees have been the central engine of environmental protest in Africa.

This is Wangari Maathai, who along with her Green Belt movement in 2005 won the Nobel Peace prize. And again you can see the iconography of the organic intellectual with her roots literally in the ground, and the physical intimacy between her and the bark. And over the duration of the movement they've planted something like 100 million trees across East Africa, and using tree planting as a form of civic empowerment, particularly for rural women.

The image here is of Chut Wutty, and coming out of Cambodia this movement called Not One More has gained global traction, where bringing together activists from across these forest struggles who've been strategised for ways to shore up their resources and to push back against the forces that are deforesting.

Via Campesina, some of you may know, is something like 200 million peasant farmers and indigenous people from 73 nations have banded together to defend land rights, food sovereignty and associated deforestation.

So I spoke a little bit about the connection between the individual tree and the individual human, but there's a collective story as well. Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: 'What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror image of what we are doing to ourselves.' And the street artist Pejac has this very powerful image of 'Free yourself'. And one of the things that's striking here is the collective experience of the individual self-destruction attacking the environmental roots of the civic body politic. And so much of the art of deforestation is linked to martyrdom and to a kind of species self-slaughter. And so one of the imaginative and emotional connections that recurs between people and trees is the idea of what is the relationship between…the forest is more than the sum total of the trees, and human society is more than the sum total of individuals. What is the civic web that connects us to each other?

And when there was illegal deforestation in public lands in Poland, a group of young mothers got together and produced a video that went viral called Polish Mothers on Tree Stumps. They were all suckling their infants on the stumps of the felled trees. I think it's a very powerful image of environmental time, of the intergenerational connection to trees as a way of thinking beyond our own lifespan into beyond the electoral cycles, beyond the newsfeed. Elongating time in this very, very intimate, personal way.

Chico Mendes said, 'At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees. Then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I'm fighting for humanity.' Thirty years later Berta Cáceres reiterates that statement with even more violence at its core: 'Giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the wellbeing of humanity and of this planet. Our Mother Earth—militarised, fenced in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated—demands that we take action.'

I want to close with a quote and an image. This is Bulgarian writer Kapka Kassabova: 'What remains sacred if a sacred mountain becomes a super-dump? I felt strongly that within my lifetime we may all become exiles, that we may all be robbed by devouring demons disguised as policy and industry, that we may all walk down some road carrying in plastic bags our memories of forests and mountains, clean rivers, and village lanes.'

Rob Nixon holds the Barron Family Professorship in Humanities and the Environment at Princeton University. He is the author of four books, most recently Dreambirds: the Natural History of a Fantasy and Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, which won numerous awards, including an American Book Award and the 2012 prize from the International Studies Association for the best book in environmental studies. Nixon writes frequently for The New York Times. His writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Nation, Chronicle of Higher Education, London Review of Books, the Huffington Post, and Critical Inquiry.

HumanNature is a landmark series of talks by a stellar line up of leading Australian and international scholars. They will share with us their insights from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology and art to examine the significant interplay between the humanities and the environmental crisis we face today.