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Happy new year? Tell that to the natural world we are destroying

Philip Hoare

As humans slow down for the holidays, so does the environmental damage they inflict – if only briefly

So the animals must pay for our dysfunctionality. Japan, swayed by some notion of nationhood, asserts itself by declaring its resumption of whaling. Revenge is being wreaked on the Save the Whale campaigns of the 1970s and 80s – the bedrock of modern environmentalism – and all those yoghurt-knitting hippies. Killer whales and belugas are kept in “whale jail” in the far east of Russia, as far from prying eyes as possible – ready to be sold to marine parks in China. Highly evolved animals are stolen from the sea and people buy tickets so their family can watch them perform in artificial pools thousands of miles from home.

Meanwhile people stand on the banks of the Thames, at the aptly named Gravesend, hoping for a peek at a lone lost beluga. (I decline to call it by its presumptively gendered and anthropomorphic name). Animals have become entertainment, and must therefore bend to our will, adopt our demotic. There are protests when prisoners are allowed to pet goats for therapeutic purposes, but plaudits when spy cams are sent into the natural world as if in extension of our own over-surveilled and tracked existence, and serious public discussions as to whether a film crew in the Antarctic should dig some penguins out of a hole. As if we weren’t in a deep enough one already.

We have to deny the innate beauty of animals because we know we are destroying their world. Newly discovered species can barely raise their heads in the jungle or the ocean depths. “On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation,” as WG Sebald wrote in his melancholy The Rings of Saturn. They are the bycatch of our remorseless progress, like the roadkill of whom Barry Lopez, the great American nature writer, observed: “They are the ones you give some semblance of burial, to whom you offer an apology, who may have been like seers in a parallel culture.”

In an essay for the online magazine Aeon, Gary Kroll, professor of history at the State University of New York, wrote: “We must understand that getting in a car, plane or train, that ordering a book from Amazon – all are destructive acts … Wildlife deserves an apology.” We even suborn the weather. Storms are given human names, as if to announce our control over the climate, even as we destroy it. These are the ultimate anthropomorphisations: Storm Emma, the beast from the east. Weather forecasters talk about “useful weather”, as if the heavens had been invented for our utility.


Space probe Osiris-Rex makes closest ever orbit of smallest ever object

Nasa sampling mission skims a mile above tiny asteroid Bennu where it will try to land and collect samples

The Nasa spacecraft Osiris-Rex has gone into orbit around an ancient asteroid, setting a pair of records.

Osiris-Rex spacecraft entered orbit on Monday around Bennu, 70m miles (110m kilometres) from Earth. It is the smallest celestial body ever to be orbited by a spacecraft, at just 500 metres across (1,600ft).

The spacecraft is orbiting barely a mile above the asteroid’s surface, another record.

Osiris-Rex arrived at Bennu in early December and flew in formation with it until the latest manoeuvre. The goal is to descend to the surface and collect samples of regolith – loose rock and dust – for return to Earth in 2023.

The New Year’s Eve milestone occurred a few hours before another Nasa explorer, New Horizons, was due to fly past the icy asteroid Ultima Thule out beyond Pluto.

Associated Press contributed to this report


Nasa probe believed to have performed most distant space flyby

New Horizons expected to have encountered Ultima Thule space rock on edge of solar system

A Nasa probe is believed to have performed the most distant flyby in history in the early hours of New Year’s Day, barrelling past a space rock called Ultima Thule on the outer edge of the solar system.

Unless gremlins intervene, the New Horizons spacecraft will have zoomed by the cosmic body at 5.33am GMT and snapped thousands of photographs of the dark, icy body as it speeds on into the void.

Ultima Thule lies 4bn miles from Earth in the Kuiper belt, a band of dwarf planets, space rocks and icy debris left over from the formation of the solar system 4.6bn years ago.

New Horizons is so distant that mission scientists had no way of helping out with any last-minute glitches. Instead any final troubleshooting will have to have been handled by the probe’s onboard software.


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