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Order, order

James Cary


The rules of television are mysterious, but some are very clear. You can't just randomly visit countries and make programmes about them. You must have a quest. Retrace some steps of a famous general like Michael Wood did with Alexander the Great. Follow the journey of someone fictional, like Michael Palin did with Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg. Repeat a journey you did in your youth, like John Bishop has been doing in Australia. Or follow an arbitrary line on a map, as Simon Reeve has done with the Equator, the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. Presumably he can now fly to the moon with his airmiles.

BBC2 have recently been repeating Simon Reeve's Tropic of Cancer series and the last episode astonished me. In Taiwan, a painfully polite child asked him what the biggest problems were that he found for humanity along the Tropic. Reeve had travelled through the oppressive, ostracised Cuba; Western Sahara, contentiously annexed by Morocco, where he had to give secret police the slip to talk to some Western Saharans (who were subsequently beaten for talking to the BBC); Libya, where a relative of Gaddafi kept an eye on him; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates where he had to be very careful; a death-defying, illegal trip to Burma, cut short by the threat of nearby soldiers; and the humble country of Laos, littered with cluster bombs from the Vietnam war. And he wasn't allowed to even set foot in China. And yet, Reeve said, the biggest problem he encountered was the human effect on the environment.

This was not a rational thing to say. The greatest cause of suffering he had encountered was politics, which was causing impoverishment and injustice for hundreds of millions of people. But somehow, Reeve, like most of us, has learned to filter out the damage done by the misuse of political power. We expect it. But when we look at pollution, deforestation and rising sea levels, we think that something's wrong. We do not think rationally about the environment and our role in it.

This is not to say that Simon Reeve does not make excellent television. He does. And I have him to thank for opening my eyes to one of the biggest blights of nature in Australia. Not the rabbits or the cane toads. The camels. Australia has the world's largest herd of camels. Imported when the roads and railways were being built, and then released into the wild when they were replaced by cars and trains, the number of camels peaked at a million in 2008. Despite the damage to farms, I was irrationally bothered by the very presence of camels in Australia. Surely they belong in the Middle East?

Soon afterwards, I heard Dr Ken Thompson on Radio 4's Start the Week talking about the camel population of Australia, challenging the view that this infestation was unnatural. Camels aren't from Australia, or the Middle East. They developed in North America before the continents had drifted to their current position. In his book, Where Do Camels Belong?, he cites dozens of examples of animals and plants that evolved in one place, but at this precise moment in time are found in another. Some moved around because tectonic plates hadn't created impassable barriers like oceans, others arrived on Viking longboats. What's the difference? And why do we have the urge to conserve nature in a particular way, freeze in time the constantly changing natural world? Conservation ultimately seems unnatural and fundamentally opposed to evolutionary biology. The earth has undergone at least five mass extinctions which have produced the nature we currently have. It's worth asking the question 'What are we trying to achieve?'. (It's a small wonder another book by the same author is called Do We Need Pandas?: The uncomfortable truth about biodiversity.)

Whatever the science of evolution and ecology proves or disproves, we feel a duty of care for the planet in our hearts. In the very first chapter of the Bible, God tells Adam and Eve to 'fill the earth and subdue it'. Tending the garden is what humans were created to do. Believing in that is no more irrational than trying to keep camels in the Middle East (which is now importing them from Australia).

We want to have dominion over the world, so we want to impose order, make maps and then draw lines on them. And then send an ex-Python around the world to follow them and give us some entertainment. Not everything in this world is rational.