As human lives and communities are destroyed by floods in Australia, and we recall the devastation of the Haiti quake one year on, it’s appropriate to reflect on the continuing challenge humanity faces to work out how best to master nature.

Baby Montana's rescue, an already iconic image of the Queensland floods. Picture: Jack Tran

As much as we can be in awe of the beauty of nature, we should resist the naive nature worship that ignores just how arbitrary and destructive it can be.

While we are in fact part of nature, we are that part of nature that is aware of itself. We are able to imagine and construct ways of shaping and managing nature to neutralise its (and our) dark side.

Some will protest that such a view is mere human hubris. They take the view that it is folly to try to master nature. They believe we should instead seek simple harmony with it.

It has seemed only natural to most humans throughout history, however, that we find ways of fighting the disease, cancers and genetic disabilities that nature cruelly inflicts. It has seemed only natural that through accumulating knowledge we seek to direct and pacify its destructive outbursts.

Now much of the talk about humans and the environment frames the discussion as if humans are not part of nature, and in starting this reflection I have begun to fall into similar language.

In fact, everything we do is natural. Even when we restructure a river and valley to create a dam, we do no more than a bower bird is doing in re-creating its environment to win over its potential mate, or, more apt, than a beaver is doing when it fells trees to secure its habitat. It is only ‘natural’, as I have said, that humans seek to control and master nature.

The difference with humanity, however, is the evolution of both consciousness and a moral instinct to defeat suffering and death. That evolutionary combination has expressed itself in an accumulation of scientific knowledge that affords ever increasing opportunities for us to work on nature to develop its gentler, more beautiful, character and to subdue its tempestuousness and destructiveness.

And so we forge tools from the earth itself to protect ourselves and prosper; we develop moral codes and culture to master and civilise our own human nature; we change the course of rivers to control and manage water; we manage and modify food sources to defeat famine; we develop drugs to defeat germs, viruses, and cancers, indeed to defeat pain itself; we take control of and direct our reproductive processes; and we even dare to tackle our often disabling and limiting genetic makeup.

When we see the destruction and human tragedy of a flood, hurricane, earthquake or eruption, or indeed when we are simply touched at the individual level by a life tormented by a cancer, we should redouble our commitment to supporting private and public expenditure for scientific research. And we should redouble our commitment to programs whose purpose is to subject nature to that part of itself that is most able to control it and promote its kinder aspects – humanity.

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    • Servaas says:

      05:14am | 15/01/11

      I semi-like this article - there is however no button for that. I believe we are more than part of nature, but agree with a lot you say because I see us as its custodians, it is for us to steward wisely.

      Your piece actually made me think of something: Those people who feel so strongly about us being part of nature that we are actually considered equals, or in some crazy cases lesser beings to say penguins for instance (I’ve heard this argument before, kid you not, that because they don’t rape, steal, etc. they are ‘better’ than humans), what is your opinion on the fact that nature is killing us? Is it retaliating, or did it actually start the whole fight? Is it best that we just live together in harmony (although I doubt nature will ever stop killing us) or should the bigger, more mature one of the two (nature and humanity) be the first to seek reconciliation?

    • Eric says:

      08:42am | 15/01/11

      “... the fact that nature is killing us ...”

      If nature is killing us, it’s doing a mighty poor job. There are more humans every year.

      If anything, nature is multiplying us.

    • TChong says:

      08:57am | 15/01/11

      Servaas, re your concerns about murderous critters and varmints         -No problems there, that a shotgun wont fix.

    • TimB says:

      09:35am | 15/01/11

      “Oooh, so Mother Nature needs a favor?! Well maybe she should have thought of that when she was besetting us with droughts and floods and poison monkeys! Nature started the fight for survival, and now she wants to quit because she’s losing. Well I say, hard cheese”

      -C.M. Burns

    • Gregg says:

      10:51am | 15/01/11

      @ Eric
      I reckon Servaas is just stating the obvious and that nature does kill with Volcanic Eruptions, Earthquakes, Tsunamis on the major scale and less so with floods/storms/mudslides etc. though there have also been flood events far more deadly than we have experienced.
      I would not agree that is retaliation but just part of the natural evolution.
      As for our increasing numbers, that’s just fornication! and the Pope, one natural and the other, well!

    • Servaas says:

      05:05am | 16/01/11

      Yeah, I was actually just wondering what the opinion were of those who believe for instance us and nature are spiritually connected (like say someone with a pantheistic world-view). In that case they consider us humans as evil for hurting and destroying nature in our various ways but would they also consider nature to be evil for doing things like it has just done? Or say we create bad karma, etc because of our destructive ways, was this another classic case of what goes around comes around?

      Basically, I would like to know how the holders of such worldviews make logic sense, by falling back on their beliefs of course, of what just happened and is currently happening in Brazil, Sri Lanka, and even to a much lesser extent in parts of South Africa, and also Pakistan last year?

    • Peter Mullen says:

      01:09pm | 11/01/13

      Sorry mate, but your argument is tainted with the exact attitude that has us in trouble with nature already. If we are to sustain ourselves as a species; the very highest priority is population control. No, that doesn’t mean mass sterilization, or any such silliness. It starts by understanding that we are directly responsible for our own survival as a species in our self awareness. We must stop clinging to ridiculous superstitions, and fear of the natural world based on profound ignorance. In the last 50 years I have developed a deep understanding of the natural world by simply observing, and experiencing the out of the way places. I am intimately familiar with the tiniest bacteria, virus, even sub atomic particles. As they say it’s not rocket science. I have made it my task to discipline myself by reading extensively,by attending lectures instead of trash Hollywood movies, by using the vast amount of free cutting edge media on line. Engineer our world absolutely; but not without an intimate knowledge of the life systems we are affecting. If we move forward without paramount sensitivity to living wild systems will be engineering our certain destruction. We are part of nature absolutely and can become extinct like any other species. Our primary problem is the speed with which we modify the natural world. No other species comes close per organism. Job #1 educate every living soul, especially women. #2 the resources of the planet must be equitably shared or we perish in ever escalating regional resource wars.

    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      05:39am | 15/01/11

      Nature is only a combination of physics, chemistry and biology. There is nothing mystical about it. Having said that, it is pretty darn stupid to muck around with something you don’t completely understand by introducing foreign elements into the environment. Otherwise you get plagues of rabbits, cane toads, blackberries or extreme weather.

    • heather says:

      10:52am | 16/01/11

      Quite correct; but logic and reason never stopped the fruitcakes from worshipping the deity of their choice/making…

    • iconoclast says:

      05:51am | 15/01/11

      While I agree with your point about false worship Chris, I think you are being magnanimous (or naively hopeful) that humans can / will ever be able to control nature.

      Hope is not a strategy…

    • Jeff says:

      05:51am | 15/01/11

      I’ve seen the argument that as part of Nature what humans do is natural.  However what humans do in the modern world is far from natural.  Natural actions are those that which are driven by instinct.  Many of the actions done by humans to nature are not driven by instinct, but by other more manipulated things called emotions many of whic hare insincere such as greed.

    • Eric says:

      08:43am | 15/01/11

      What makes you think emotions aren’t natural?

    • sproket says:

      08:28am | 16/01/11

      Jeff, Jeff, Jeff,

      many other animals express emotions. Many other animals express greed. Your assumption that these phenomenon are not “natural” betrays a blind faith that everything about nature is pure, beautiful and virtuous.  Watching too many Tinkerbell Specials on Disney Channel perhaps?

      Nature is not cruel, sure, but it is callous. It just does not care - not about you, or anything else that lives.  Why do you hold so dear something that cares not a jot for you?

      You are a cosmic cuckold, tenfold.

    • Eric says:

      05:57am | 15/01/11

      An excellent article. Here’s another thought to add.

      Consider the Gaia Hypothesis - that the Earth is a living being. What is one of the main characteristics of almost all living beings? It’s the drive to reproduce.

      How does a living planet reproduce itself? Obviously, it must send seeds of some sort to other, dead planets.

      And in order to do that, Gaia would have to produce a species that can travel in space.

      We might be even more a part of nature than we realise.

    • Steph says:

      11:17am | 15/01/11

      Well, if you follow Evolution, Gaia’s taking her sweet time getting us out there, because she’s dying quicker then we’re flying in space. You’d think she might just have perfected something in the x billion years she’s had to ponder it.

    • Eric says:

      12:57pm | 15/01/11

      That’s just silly, Steph.

      What dying? Gaia’s doing quite well.

    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      01:51pm | 15/01/11

      Why Gaia produce humans as the equivalent of cancer cell? That’s like saying you want a tumour in your body…...

    • Eric says:

      02:10pm | 15/01/11

      What are you trying to say, Shane? Please use English.

    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      03:54pm | 15/01/11

      *** correction *** sentence should read “Why would Gaia produce humans as the natural equivalent of cancer cells?”: That makes as much sense as as Eric imparting intelligent design to the Earth or Gaia. Or the original poster stating that humans are a part of nature, yet somehow special or apart from nature in being able to control their environment. An inherent contradiction there. All humans are just silly apes whose abilities have outstripped their common sense…

    • Eric says:

      06:01pm | 15/01/11

      You’re still being silly, Shane.

      Nothing I have said posits humans as different or apart from nature.

    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      07:53pm | 15/01/11

      @Eric 6.01pm: As I stated, the original poster,  i.e. Chris Gardiner, as putting forward that argument, not you.

    • mags says:

      06:51am | 15/01/11

      In this new Age of Aquarius humanity seems to be left out of the equation. The constant mantra of environment at all costs has brainwashed a generation and this nonsense of blaming everything on ” global warming”, “climate change” or ” climate disruption” is causing a well deserved backlash against the scientific community.

      To the average Joe, all they do is argue disparate points, generally without the data to back up their claims. What a pity they don’t stop trying to be an expert on things outside their area of expertise and concentrate on something that will benefit humanity. I suppose the chase for funds for all these studies and research projects has turned the sciences into just another drain on the public purse. When we consider the great strides made in medical and other research, it seems a shame that we waste so much on schemes that produce anything constructive to all of us.

    • West D says:

      10:08am | 15/01/11

      Hmm, well, there you go leaving humanity out of the equation too mate… go and look at mapping data and tell me who is running the show green aquarians or zombie planners (?) given the hurry up by developers and their finger lickin greed and devil may care attitude to dumping people into floodplain$?

      Stop promoting anti-science!

    • Shame to Developers says:

      07:00am | 15/01/11

      It’s the worshipping of greed by politicians, councilors and developers which is the problem. Years ago in Queensland, come planning officers and hydrologists proposed that flood plains around Brisbane should not be developed in the way the developers wanted.  The proposal was shelved and the developers won - but I doubt they will be shamed - it will all be washed under the bridge like the cars and people the Queensland flood destroyed.

    • martinX says:

      08:37am | 16/01/11

      The developers only won because the Brisbane City Council agreed to “reset” some flood boundaries and allow building in areas where it was previously disallowed. The Courier Mail questioned it at the time, but the BCC still went ahead with it.

    • persephone says:

      07:11am | 15/01/11

      So we should build dams because we can. Or we’re beavers. Or something.

      Matey, as well as this god given ability to manipulate the natural world (therefore we should) that we’re developed, we’ve also got a brain that can look at a problem and objectively analyse the alternatives.

      This ability means we’ve been able to look at some of the results of our manipulation of nature and decide that, in some cases, it really wasn’t a good idea.

      We can also look at several solutions to problems and decide that some or none of them are actually good ideas.

      So, instead of just going out and changing the environment because we can, or because we have an instinctive imperative to do so, as you seem to be saying, perhaps what we should do is look at all the options open to us and all their possible consequences before we start mucking around with things.

      Having done this, we can then make decisions which are really in the best interests of all concerned, rather than operating on knee jerk reactions.

    • Gregg says:

      10:43am | 15/01/11

      @ persephone
      Interesting perse that you started a tad overwrought at the thought of us as a species just beavering away at whatever because we can but then you’ve swung around as did Chris in his article, ie.
      In particular the last few words:
      ”  as I have said, that humans seek to control and master nature. “
      and
      ” The difference with humanity, however, is the evolution of both consciousness and a moral instinct to defeat suffering and death. That evolutionary combination has expressed itself in an accumulation of scientific knowledge that affords ever increasing opportunities for us to work on nature to develop its gentler, more beautiful, character and to subdue its tempestuousness and destructiveness. “
      and you with:
      ” perhaps what we should do is look at all the options open to us and all their possible consequences before we start mucking around with things.
      Having done this, we can then make decisions which are really in the best interests of all concerned, rather than operating on knee jerk reactions. “
      And as always, a decision will hardly ever be considered the best by all, to me, a reference in another key part of Chris’s article:
      ” Now much of the talk about humans and the environment frames the discussion as if humans are not part of nature,”
      I suppose it could be a paraphrasing for Greenies don’t like Dams!

      You do wonder where they reckon millions should get their water from in a dry continent like Australia.

    • persephone says:

      11:49am | 15/01/11

      Gregg

      a couple of nice furphies there.

      Firstly, I’m not a Green.

      Secondly, I’m not necessarily against dams, or I’d be advocating dismantling the ones we have - which I’m not.

      Thirdly, we don’t put people in the dry part of our continent. The strip on the coasts where we do receives (in normal years) a similar rainfall to most populated areas.

      Fourthly, you may not have noticed, but dams are not the only way to provide water to communities. Indeed, part of the lessons learnt from the long drought was that relying on dams alone is a very risky business. The communities which rode out the drought well usually had more than one source of water.

      I’m sorry (must be a bad morning) but I really don’t understand most of the first part of your post.

    • Swingdog says:

      07:26am | 15/01/11

      “You may have seen me in such educational films as Man Versus Nature: The Road To Victory.”

    • Rob r Charteris says:

      07:30am | 15/01/11

      ripping kiddies from their parents arms…. on ya god we knew we could rely on you NOT. God has absolutely nothing to do with it. God only exist ibn the minds of insecure people who need dictating to on how to live their empty lil lives.

    • True Believer says:

      12:26pm | 15/01/11

      Amazes me the intellectual (or otherwise) contortions unbelievers use to push their sad little wheelbarrow against God. One minute He does not exist, next minute He is to blame for every evil.  At least we believers are consistent in our beliefs.

    • Wayne Fehlhaber says:

      01:04pm | 15/01/11

      Rob :  Whatever brought on that irrational outburst ?

      ” God only exists in the minds of insecure people…....”

      Your comments , on many occasions , reflect the stresses of a very insecure person.
      God is for you Rob , you need Him and He will take you in to His care.
      Inner peace Rob , it is believeably cool. !  Go for it , it’s free.

    • Danny B says:

      01:21pm | 16/01/11

      I think that what he’s trying to say is that if God exists and is a loving God, how do natural disasters like this happen?  It can’t be because we angered him - if I recall correctly, the Bible teaches forgiveness.  Anyone?

    • Christian Real says:

      04:08pm | 16/01/11

      Rob r Charteris
      I don’t see myself as being insecure,and yet I put my faith and belief into God.
      For once I find myself agreeing with Wayne Fehlhaber, which is rare and unusual.

    • True Believer says:

      06:30am | 17/01/11

      @DannyB

      Read the Bible properly - Old Testament and New Testament (the latter telling of Jesus). Then you will realise since the Fall we live in a broken world which is ruled by the destroyer, Satan - he is there from beginning to end.  He is currently the ruler of the world - but not of those who are truly committed to Jesus who brought light to a dark world.

      Satan has conned most people in the world that he does not exist, therefore they blame God instead of the evil one for the evil in the world.

      God is Love, Jesus the greatest example of Love, He gave His life to bring hope to a fallen world - He came to save, but then as now the foolish and blind rejected and mocked Him.  However in Him is love, life, joy and the “peace that passes all human understanding.”

      No doubt I will draw criticizm for my comments, but hopefully some out there will take time to put their cynicism on hold and take a real look at what the Christian message is all about. The greatest act of Love the world has ever seen.

    • Paul walsh says:

      08:26am | 15/01/11

      Chris, more accurately, worshipping humanity brings us no closer to humanity!

      Bligh did well (and nature cut her a break- she had luck on her side) but let’s not get hero-silly, she comes from a visionless conga line of head-in-the-sand Premiers that ignored the experts and their own gov reports. And want to double Brislantis population in the future, just as they have since the ‘74 floods. Double the folly and double the people rammed into reclaimed swamps, floodplains and low lying areas.

      Blind addiction to growth and risk. At any cost.

      Bottom line this wasn’t a 1 in 100 year flood and emergency response was fantastic but it aint good or competent leadership.. Saving future lives hinges on critical and factual thinking and dare i say it some science based long term city planning.

      You completely miss the point Chris re your comment “They take the view that it is folly to try to master nature”. There is no mastering here in Bris, it’s more factually like a game of Russian Roulette —a time bomb ticking.

      As cute and well intentioned as your sentiments are Chris, blind faith, anti-science, she’ll-be-right city planning,  ignorance of history and philosophical musing will not save future lives. You are part of the problem.

      Ask for a 1 in 100 year flood map of Brisbane and you might get the drift mate…

    • Former Brisbanite says:

      09:52am | 15/01/11

      This is a known 1 in 35 year cycle flood. Why do the QLDers keep forgetting about the cycle?

    • Paul W says:

      06:56am | 16/01/11

      What is known as the 35 year flood - this one? AGreed. People like Chris and others should look up their history books and the monster 1893 flood before they make delusional statements about “mastering nature”... The poor bloke is living in an alternate universe or on some high fantasy castle. Also why is it so difficult to get flood level data etc in a world of the internet - so people can make informed choices about buying “affordable”, “safe”, “dry” housing??

      Such forgetting and ignorant thinking killed people this time and will kill more in 35 years…

      When is News Ltd going to start asking the hard historical and future questions or are they just feeding, parasitising hysteria off the tradegy..?? (Penbo??)

      Journalism anyone??

    • Gregg says:

      08:52am | 15/01/11

      You do need to differentiate some I believe Chris for with the statements of
      ”  it’s appropriate to reflect on the continuing challenge humanity faces to work out how best to master nature. “
      There are limits to our mastery and earthquakes and eruptions are probably well away from being able to do anything other than not living anywhere near a particular area.
      Next up the scale are tornadoes for they’ll pick their targets with some randomness but within regions as with hurricanes and cyclones etc. for again there are limits to protection.
      ” While we are in fact part of nature, we are that part of nature that is aware of itself. We are able to imagine and construct ways of shaping and managing nature to neutralise its (and our) dark side. “
      Sure we can do some shaping, but to work with nature rather than to attempt too much management of it.
      When it comers to heavily urbanised areas such as Brisbane/Ipswich, and even regional cities/towns known flood zones should not be developed for other than recreational parkland or grazing/cropping.
      Fires are another part of nature and I doubt whether a real plan has come out of the massive enquiry held for the Victorian fires for if you are going to have townships in not only a known high risk fire region but surrouned by forest, you need fire breaks, even if they have to be half a kilometre wide - great for the timber industry that was why Marysville was established in the first place.

      Back to floods and it’s an unfortunate fact of life that villages become towns that grow into cities and have often initially been established on a river, the requirement of one of our staples of life, water being met and then there’s also transport.
      This is the case with Brisbane and even though the highest flood ever recorded was in 1893, a look at the records - http://www.bom.gov.au/hydro/flood/qld/fld_history/brisbane_history.shtml does not show a desirable trend for that period and though Wivenhoe can hold a lot of water that would otherwise caused greater flooding, we only need to get more of the tropical intensity rain common to Queensland right through to April if not beyond and we’ll be heading towards a repeat of what has just occurred.
      Longer term, if Wivenhoe can not be enlarged or the topography does not allow a sizable downstream dam or dams, something like a Flood Bypass system may be an alternative to flooding.

      It would be expensive but with all that transport tunnelling going on, an investigation is needed for the use of that type of equipment to put a 30 km. or thereabouts tunnel or tunnels from an entry lagoon downstream from Wivenhoe and as close to urban areas as possible to an exit lagoon downstream from the Gateway.
      A branch tunnel could also go to an entry lagoon upstream of Ipswich on the Bremer River too.

      There was a report a while back that some tunnelling equipment is to be buried on the Brisbane Airport Access because of economics of taking it out and what a shame that would be, if in fact it could be put to good use to prevent massive floods of Brisbane in the longer term.

    • iansand says:

      09:46am | 15/01/11

      I always thought those bower birds were responsible for more than they let on.

    • Benjamin Bower Bird says:

      09:51am | 15/01/11

      You’ll shut up if you know what’s good for you.

    • TChong says:

      09:53am | 15/01/11

      Chris, didnt you know Sir Bedivere was a proponent of using sheeps bladders to predict earthquakes. ?

    • dw says:

      11:17am | 15/01/11

      Our bodies destroy millions of cells in order to keep us alive and healthy. We don’t lament the cell’s death - we are barely aware of it. Perhaps it is the same on a global (and universal) scale.

    • kerrie o'rourke says:

      02:29pm | 15/01/11

      eventually ,like the dinsosaurs, humanity will become extinct.
      Nature will outlive humanity, today’s dinosaurs.

    • P. Darvio says:

      02:46pm | 15/01/11

      The Dinosaurs become extinct because they didn’t have a space program….and humans have a space program….oh that’s right I forgot - Obama has cancelled the US manned space flight program….you are right - we will become extinct thanks to Obama.

    • kerrie o'rourke says:

      02:34pm | 15/01/11

      humanity will destroy itself and as much of nature as it can before humanity vanishes forever from the earth.
      Nature,flora and fauna, won’t destroy us as much as human nature will do so.
      Bacteria ,Viruses and other microorganisms will assist us with our self destruction.

    • Eno The Wonderdog says:

      05:29pm | 15/01/11

      Dominate Nature? Allow Nature to run rampant? This is definitely one of those things where both camps are wrong.

      The easiest & cheapest way to do something is often the middle way. Roll a round rock down a hill & try to stop it - that’s gonna take a lot of force. Understand the forces involves & deflect it it takes less forces (read resources)

      My theory is understand & harness & where necessary deflect - not “Control” but work with.

      Works better with people too BTW..

    • Cactus says:

      12:40pm | 16/01/11

      Peter W,  above said:
      “Such forgetting and ignorant thinking killed people this time and will kill more in 35 years…”

      It could flood again next week, next month or anytime this wet season. Be prepared, never mind 35 years.

    • Harquebus says:

      01:21pm | 16/01/11

      There are too many of us and nature is about to weed us out.

    • psyco-corporation says:

      05:42pm | 16/01/11

      Exmouth I believe in Western Australia is taboo for the indigenous.  Some may know that this is because of the treats of tsunamis in the past.  They don’t like to go there.

      Unfortunately because our government is so busy wrapping us in protectionist legal cotton wool we assume we’re all safe to live anywhere.
      We are no longer salt of the earth.  We are not told in a worshiped dream time story that this is a dangerous place to live.

      Generations pass with history lost.

      It may be in the fine fine print of your purchase contract when you procured your house though if it has flooded there prior 100 years.  Its worth reading again..

    • James Hunter says:

      08:49am | 17/01/11

      Worlds problems will solve themselves in as much as the world will go on it is a matter of conjecture as to weather or not humanity will.
      Like any organism we adapt the earth to our uses as the article says a beaver dams a river and has no concern it it drowns a nest of wooly eared dungbats. The termites build huge nests and dont care if they shade out the last remaining pink elephant pea.
      Using the eartyhs resources to our ends is also natural and esential.
      The one thing we can and should do is stop the human race breading itself into oblivion. To do that I recomend that all food aid to developing countries come with a price tag. If you want it then mandatory population control
      To cahieve this we may have to piss of the pope and his minions who promote the production of a never ending supply of catholics. Problem is they leave it to the rest of us to feed them . Cant let em starve as nature would have cause then they cant breed. talk about the evil empire.

    • RT says:

      01:20pm | 17/01/11

      Why worry? We’ll all be dead in another few billion years when the sun becomes a ‘red giant’ anyway.

    • SimonR says:

      04:58pm | 18/01/11

      What a singularly peculiar take on the floods.

      Who exactly is it that is out there worshipping nature? The Greens? Hippies? Pagans? Are events like these not answering the obvious redundancy in the old chestnut of man conquering everything? Surely the better question is how can to live within the boundaries that nature grants us to live at all in? Conquer? I hardly think so and that is without even starting on the effects of climate change already intruding into our lives.

      This story is so random I can barely follow it. Linking human achievement and development as an argument to not master nature is just bizarre. As is the analogy of a bower bird to the scope and destructiveness of human expansion. As the population of the planet continues to explode and resources disappear it is delusion to conclude our concrete development is a natural extension of nature.

      I can’t even make sense of the concluding sentence but human nature may indeed seek to master nature but to ignore the fact that we are animals living in the natural world while science waits for expenditure to solve humanity is logic akin to the dark ages.

 

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