An existentialist reads Grayling

A. C. Grayling talk in Melbourne

As I mentioned a few days ago, I didn’t attend philosopher A. C. Grayling’s Melbourne talk, but instead read his book, For the Good of the World. I think he nailed some issues and perspectives in the first two-thirds of the book, and then I appreciated how he handled an issue that perplexes me endlessly. As an existentialist, who believes we make our own meaning, how do I insist on joint action, something vital in this global climate crisis (and central to Grayling’s book)? His encapsulation (p. 174) grabs the essence:

Relativism is a natural corollary, perhaps indeed it is the defining characteristic, of postmodernism. A commendable motivation for it is the desire to promote reciprocal respect between different cultures and value systems, and to make amends for cultural as well as other imperialisms of the past. The price paid for this worthwhile motive is a lack of guide-rails for dealing with the very real problems faced by the world and people in it.

Grayling’s precision!

Grayling For the Good of the World

I’m less than a fifth through A. C. Grayling’s For the Good of the World and already I’m in awe of the way he pithily encapsulates realities (p. 35).

Broadly speaking, the options available to humanity are: either break the negative version of the self-interest Law (what can be done will not be done) by radically switching direction from a growth model to a sustainability model of economic activity, or make the decoupling agenda work — that is, find the fixes that would make renewable energy cheap and plentiful, would remove and safely store the excess CO2e in the atmosphere, and would positively incentivize doing both. At time of writing the first option is not in play and the second is a mixture of insufficiencies and wishful thinking.

His words strike true. I see economists and philosophers arguing for radical decoupling but there is no evidence for any change or appetite for change to ”growth as king.” Bill Gates is the obvious barometer of the ”fixes” approach, and sure, we can see renewable heading south in terms of unit costs, but the pace is too slow and the process is muddied by technological mirages on offer.

Third ember

Eurasian Crane

The Eurasian Crane is one of the three still-thriving Crane species. There are many places to see it in northern or southern Europe. Is this photograph not enticing? I have relatives near a superb Estonian reserve where you can see thousands. The best time might be July to September (I’m unsure of anything any more accurate). Maybe 2023?

Quiet, beating heart!

Another ember

Grey Crowned Cranes in Uganda

Four of the fifteen Crane species are in South Africa. None are in great shape, as species in the Anthropocene Era. See these splendid, primordial-looking Grey Crowned Cranes? The photo is from Uganda.

My limited research suggests I can see all four in one African trip. The mechanics are not straightforward. I think I’d need to sign on for two separate wildlife tours (hopefully birding focused). Mucho $$$$s, swadges of time. The best time of year is sometime in February or thereabouts. And let’s be sensible: February 2023 might not be the best notion for an African voyage, pandemic-wise. But what about 2024? Should I plan now?

See, an ember glows

Red-crowned Crane at Kuhiro

15 Cranes was launched as a writing project in April 2018. During Covid, but not because of the pandemic, the project was shelved. Too big, too daunting, too time-consuming. By that time I had seen only two of the fifteen Crane species.

See that Red-crowned Crane flying so sublimely? They’re endangered, maybe only 3,000 strong. They’re welcomed and fed on the island of Hokkaido. This photo is from the Kuhiro reserve.

Japan has weathered the pandemic well. Travel there is possible now (I know, a friend is going). The best time is January. The snow! Those birds!

Should I?

Remote Western Australia


Came across this wonderful image on an information board while on a nine-day bouncy tour from Darwin to Broome. The Gibb River Road is a 4WDer’s dream: rattly but rather good quality, yet subject to swiftly emerging flooded sections. I was here in June, the start of the dry season. The photo is dated February, in the middle of the wet season.

Imagine seeing this display through your windscreen. The Brolga, one of Australia’s two Crane species, is not a household name, but all those who see one, never forget.

Omid still flies

Siberian Crane in Iran by Hossein Khademi

The western population of Siberian Cranes is on its last legs. Every year one of them, Omid, flies 6,000 kms to the north of Iran, on the southern banks of the Caspian Sea. It’s the only Siberian Crane left that makes this particular journey (he has missed two years of the last 16). He winters in Iran for about a third of each year. He is carefully tracked. “Locals are very much fond of him,” says this Tehran Times article.

I’ve only followed news of him, courtesy of the International Crane Foundation, for the last couple of years. Omid means hope. Does he symbolize hope to me, in line with each year’s bubbly article? Not at all. I’ve dreamt of witnessing this critically endangered species. But I shudder at the thought of journeying to Iran, raising my binoculars, and gazing upon this beautiful bird, destined to arrive here each year, all alone, until it too dies.


Cranes in Mongolia

I guess we all have images in our heads of the barren steppes of Mongolia, squarish yurts in the distance, but I’ve never hankered to go there. When we did the long train trip from Moscow to Beijing, we opted for the route that swung into China before a Mongolian traverse. I enjoy seeing random photos of Mongolia but that’s the extent of my interest in it.

In particular, when I’ve mused over where I might travel to see the fifteen global Crane species, Mongolia hasn’t been on my radar. Well, now I’ve watched a recent five-minute video from the International Crane Foundation, part of their Magic Moments snippets. This one is titled Coexisting in Mongolia. Take a look—I’m sure you’ll be beguiled.

The video is interesting in terms of the work ICF is doing in Mongolia (I especially like that the voiceovers are by the Mongolian conservationists on the ground), trying to retain the easygoing relationships between nomadic people, grazing beasts, and the various species of Cranes. I hadn’t realized that Mongolia sees six of the world’s fifteen Crane species either fly through or reside. Perhaps, I hypothesize, it would be none too difficult to fly to Ulaanbaatar and hire a guide to take me to the newly protected wetlands described in the video. Initial Googling doesn’t really tell me where the Khurkh and Khuiten Rivers Valleys nature reserve is, but one of the places mentioned in a Mongolian government nature reserve decree in 2019 (see this) suggests a four- to five-hour drive might be involved.

The video’s brief graphic about the six Crane species found in Mongolia also tantalizes me from another angle. I’m no naturalist. Basic migration concepts don’t come easily to me but I’ve grown accustomed to the idea of Crane breeding grounds in one place, usually inhospitable and far from humans, and overwintering grounds elsewhere. But there’s another category in the photo, showing the Hooded Crane and Siberian Crane “summering” in Mongolia. Glancing at the ICF’s excellent compendium web page on the fifteen species, I see that the Siberian Crane winters southward into China, breeds in northeast China, but also “summers” in Mongolia. What have I missed?

Hello, Sarus Crane

Sarus Cranes

Very few Australians realize the continent is home to two distinct Crane species. Indeed, among the great unwashed of the population who barely know birds exist, most don’t know the Brolga, but at least the Brolga is known and admired by even the most casual birder. The Sarus Crane is far less prolific and is only found in far north Queensland. It is slightly larger than the Brolga and varies from it in a few subtle ways, but the only real means of telling one species from the other at a distance in the wild is to look at the red coloring on top. In the Brolga, the red is a cap, in the Sarus, it’s a hood extending down the neck.

Our recent road trip proceeded up the center to Darwin, then east under the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Atherton Tablelands just west of Cairns, then back down through Queensland, then a 24-hour dash through locked-down New South Wales, finally emerging in Victoria and on towards Melbourne. The 14,000 kilometer driving portion took about seven weeks. Besides being a fun thing to do, the trip’s point for me was to “see” and observe our two Cranes.

I’d seen Brolgas in Victoria (even though humans have almost wiped them out in that State over a century and a half) but never a Sarus Crane, and as we ventured from Darwin along flat curveless roads through the baking outback desert, I began to doubt I ever would. Northern Territory yielded none. Four days after we crossed the border into Queensland, we hit the sun-seared junction town of Normanton and then headed north for our only contact with the Gulf sea. I experienced a wave of anxiety after we saw families of Brolgas, in small flocks, by the roadside. But no Sarus Cranes. A dull ache occluded me. Then … a cry from Pam. There they were.

Quite what emotions should have been anticipated, was not and is not clear to me. After that initial sighting, more appeared, some amongst Brolgas, sometimes in large numbers. By the time we reached Karumba, a holiday and fishing town up on the Gulf, later that day, we had recorded about 450 cranes on eBird. What I recall now is a general sense of elation and a growing curiosity about both species. Why were the cranes really only up in the Top End? How come we haven’t wiped them out? How distinct are the two species? Why are Sarus Crane numbers only about ten percent of Brolga numbers? Underneath it all: why are these impressive but by no means classically beautiful birds so resonant in my mind and heart?

Cranes Number One and Two

Crane species

This 15 Cranes project has just about died in the arse. With nearly two thirds of Australia in lockdown and swathes of the globe ravaged by the pandemic, it would be quixotic indeed to want to “see” all fifteen Crane species, having as yet seen only one. The new IPCC science report, dropped a week ago, reinforces general project gloom: shouldn’t we all be reassessing flying at all, in order to cut emissions?

Nonetheless, more as an act of faith in the power of obsessions than for any cogent reason, we leave Darwin today and drive east to “find” Brolga and Sarus Crane, Australis’s two Cranes. We expect to see them in family groups or small flocks across the Gulf of Carpentaria, and, a fortnight later, in larger flocks in the Atherton Tablelands. I’m thrilled and worried. Will three weeks of immersion in this project enhance it or diminish it?