Talking Points

Hong Kong under siege. PHOTO: Axios
  1. China readied to enact sweeping 'security' laws for Hong Kong
  2. Worsening intra-ethnic conflict killed hundreds in South Sudan
  3. Merkel and Macron unveiled a €500b EU pandemic relief fund
  4. Donald Trump pressed his attack on mail voting in Michigan
  5. And withdrew America from the critical 'Open Skies' treaty
  6. J&J removed baby talc from shelves amid thousands of lawsuits
  7. The global coronavirus case count crossed 5 million
  8. Viktor Orban's Hungary rescinded the rights of trans people
  9. US births fell to a 35-year low – well below the replenishment rate
  10. The pandemic has reduced daily carbon emissions by 17%

Deep Dive

Do not pat. PHOTO: University of Wollongong

Before we return to the usual programming of intrigue and conflict, let's take a moment to ponder what came before us. You don't need to peer into deep space to place your life in perspective; you can look at a bunch of old rocks. This week we were captivated by three significant paleontological announcements.

An embarrassment of fossils

The ancient floodplains at South Walker Creek, near the north-eastern Australian city of Mackay, have relinquished a priceless trove of fossils. A team comprising the Australian Research Council and Queensland Museum have painstakingly identified 13 extinct megafauna from fossils first discovered by the traditional owners of the region, the Barada Barna people, over a decade ago. Without further ado – they include an enormous proto-kangaroo that stood up to seven metres tall and weighed nearly 300kg, a six-metre-long iguana, and a huge marsupial lion ( Thylaceo Carnifex ) which dispatched prey with the strongest bite of any mammal in recorded history. Lurking about the waterholes favoured by these land-dwellers were ancient crocodiles in similarly-engorged dimensions.

While these wonderful creatures spark awe in us all (particularly the comically-large bucktooth wombat) it was their demise that enraptured the researchers. The site at South Walker Creek has revealed the youngest megafauna fossils on the continent: they roamed just 40,000 years ago. By that time the ancestors of the modern Indigenous people were well established: they would've no doubt hunted (and occasionally been hunted) by these creatures. The results of this dig challenge the supposition that the megafauna were hunted into extinction . Indeed, a changing climate may have doomed them with increasingly arid conditions . There may be a lesson in here for the current inhabitants of Australia.

A few steps step farther

While there is still much debate about the fascinating 15,000 years of overlap between Australia's first inhabitants and its megafauna, there is no such concern with the elaphrosaurus. These curious, dainty, fleet creatures roamed the Earth 110 million years ago . This is the first to have been discovered in Australia. The unusually long-necked elaphrosaurus (as if there is anything "usual" about dinosaurs!) was a distant relative of the unfairly villainized T-Rex, but appears to have evolved into an omnivore. It was an astonishingly improbable discovery: a lone 5cm vertebra picked out of a jumble of bones that a fast-flowing river had deposited on top of one another. Such scientific flukes should fill us with a giddiness at what might yet be gleaned (read: chiselled) from the rocks beneath our feet.

And, to reaffirm some semblance of balance, let's hop across the Pacific. On Monday the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences announced it had unearthed the remains of a 70 million year old predator: a megaraptor. These were highly-specialised carnivorous hunters, swift runners that were balanced by a long tail, with long forearms. Ignoring the awkward combination of Greek ("mega") and Latin ("raptor") – their 40cm long thumb claws certainly helped them live up to the name: great seizer. This well preserved specimen will be studied at length: these were the last carnivorous dinosaurs on Earth – the planetary extinction event happened just a few million years later.

99.9% of all species that have ever existed are extinct. Sooner or later us upright mammals with opposable thumbs (and laptops) will go the same way as the aforementioned. We'd wager that like the megafauna of northern Queensland, it's a gradual and inexorable worsening of our environment that drives our species to extinction. Interestingly enough you only need to travel to the northern tip of that very state to find the watery grave of the Bramble Cay melomys, the small rodent that is considered the first mammal to have been wiped out from anthropogenic climate change driven sea level rise. Our species will watch countless more species go in the same way before we do. And still, there's something comforting in knowing (despite all of that) that when we become part of the fossil record, there will be life – scurrying, swimming, and soaring above our calcified remains.


Worldlywise

Life amongst the rubble. PHOTO: Reuters

Amphan batters the Bay of Bengal

Cyclone Amphan barrelled through the Indian state of West Bengal and along the coast of southwest Bangladesh from Wednesday. The super cyclone has killed at least 85 people, and compounded despair across a region already afflicted by coronavirus. Winds of up to 150 kilometres per hour split houses in half, uprooted trees and tore a 400km swath through West Bengal . In Kolkata alone, over 14 million were left without power . Further east, it ripped through Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where about one million Rohingya refugees are sheltered. Hundreds more Rohingya were relocated to shelters on Bhashan Char , a flood-prone, low-lying island. Amphan’s ecological damage has already been devastating. It has submerged parts of the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it has flooded crops and fish farms with seawater. The salinisation of these plots is not only ecologically detrimental – it also destroys the means of survival for many.

The Bay of Bengal is no stranger to ruinous cyclones. Bhola in 1970 killed half a million, while Odisha in 1999 killed 10,000. But the strength and frequency of these cyclones has increased in recent decades. And experts point squarely to climate change, as tropical cyclones are proven to gain more energy in warmer temperatures. This spelled disaster for Amphan. In the lead up to the cyclone, sea surface temperatures across the bay were unusually high: 32-34 degrees celsius. Experts believe it was these temperatures that caused Amphan to rise from a category one to a category five cyclone in a record 18 hours . The increased frequency and severity of these storms across the region have forced authorities to improve cyclone warning systems. But such a short window span left authorities with little time to prepare for Amphan. The disaster has been deemed worse than the coronavirus, and threatens to amplify the disease’s spread as millions are crammed into shelters .

Settlements: the slow invasion. PHOTO: Reuters

There are no rules

This week Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israel's prime minister a record fourth time. He will serve 18 months of the term before handing over to rival-turned-ally Benny Gantz. Even so, the multiple criminal cases against him are progressing. A court ordered that Netanyahu must attend the hearing against him on Sunday – the first ever prosecution of a sitting Israeli leader. Luckily for Netanyahu, the case is expected to take years, which is plenty of time for scheming. Even if Netanyahu is finally toppled before his term ends (and we wouldn't bet on it), one facet of his legacy will doubtless be enacted: the annexation of the West Bank. This is hardly surprising: a flick through the resumes of Israel's new unity cabinet reads like that of a junta.

What was once considered inalienably Palestinian – the heartland of a future state – is now fair game. (This is not to say that tanks will be rolling across the border: the military occupation has blanketed the West Bank with Israeli soldiers.) The United Nations warned Israel off the partial annexation of a de jure sovereign state, but Tel Aviv has ignored the UN for decades. The broader international community has simply lost interest, or is resigned to Israel's overwhelming military advantage. With no options left, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, rescinded the security agreement that has largely kept the peace since the Second Intifada. This will accelerate a return to arms.

The annexation, if it proceeds, will prove the doubters right: that the Palestinian Authority has been nothing more than a fig-leaf for Tel Aviv's military rule. Abbas, a nepotistic and widely-disliked figure in Palestine, has nonetheless spent 15 years in power playing by the rules demanded of him in order to eke out the possibility of a future state. It's apparent that such negotiations were a cynical and effective ploy to keep Palestinians suspended between recognition and occupation. Keep this in mind the next time you hear a diplomat extolling the virtues of a "rules-based system".


The Best of Times

Better late than never. PHOTO: Jason Rodriguez

Buy your mother a raffle ticket

Even if she doesn't like the Picasso she can still hawk it for €1,000,000 .

Justice for Mitoshi Matsumoto

Last December the famously-strict 7-Eleven cut ties with a franchisee who broke the company's 24/7 opening times. While Mitoshi Matsumoto may still be deprived of his store, the media attention his case received may have cracked that steely policy . It's become known that in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the parent company Seven & I Holdings has quietly exempted some stores from the ludicrous expectations. Cultural change is predicated on individual sacrifice: thank you for your service, Mitoshi.


The Worst of Times

Damned if they do. PHOTO: Al Jazeera

Unhappy deal

McDonald's is the largest fast-food chain in the world with over 37,000 stores in 120 countries. And a complaint filed with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) alleges that sexual harassment is systemic across that global empire. Fast-food workers are amongst the most vulnerable in the food service industry and must contend with the downward pressure that all disposable labourers endure. Too often they are ignored, or simply too scared to report harassment, which necessitates unorthodox action like this. In what may serve as a test-case for other corporate sexual harassment complaints, the labour unions responsible for the complaint have also pinged two investment banks with significant holdings in McDonald's for failing to meet their due diligence obligations. We'll be following this one closely.

If I could turn back time

A story in the science magazine [REDACTED] raised eyebrows with the claim that the Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna had found evidence of a parallel universe in which time travels backwards . It's been thoroughly debunked, and while we're all for the correction of fake news, the ennui is palpable: no, we're not going to be able to relive our salad days.


Weekend Reading

The quote

"I took their money and they took me out in front of the cameras and told me what to say. I did it well too. I am a good actress. Of course I'm not acting now. If a young woman wants to have an abortion, that's no skin off my ass. That's why they call it a choice."

Norma McCorvey , known pseudonymously as Jane Roe from the watershed Supreme Court case ( Roe v Wade ), has finally shed light on the most perplexing aspect of her story. Despite being the plaintiff that finally earned the right to an abortion in 1973, McCorvey would go to side with the anti-abortion movement. As it turns out: she was paid off to switch sides.

The numbers

36,000

- Deaths which may have been avoided if the United States had enforced social-distancing measures just one week earlier than it did .

772

- Years since Seville's last mosque was put out of operation by Ferdinand III of Castile's besieging army . Today the ex-Sevilla FC player Fred Kanoute is raising money to build a new mosque for his city. A reunion, rather than a reconquista.

The headline

"Cry hard with a vengeance: Chinese woman sends tonne of onions to ex" AFP

The special mention

This week, an earnest special mention goes to the anti-apartheid leader Denis Goldberg , who has died aged 87. Like so many members of the Jewish diaspora who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, Goldberg's life was organised around the principle of racial justice. It led him to join the armed wing of the uMkhonto we Sizwe to overthrow the apartheid regime. He would be the only white man handed a life sentence on Robin Island alongside Nelson Mandela in 1962. Vale, Denis.

A few choice long-reads

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting