Why we need some proactive thinking on the environment

It’s time to take the environment seriously, and I don’t mean climate change. Climate change is a significant threat, but it can be tackled only at the global level, with each country contributing its agreed share of emissions reductions. In the meantime, there is much environmental action and repair that can, and should be initiated by Australian governments of all kinds: our greatest power to effect change lies within our own borders.

A firefighter back-burns scrubland close to Mt Beauty. Indigenous Australians have burned the bush regularly for thousands of years. Picture: Getty Images
A firefighter back-burns scrubland close to Mt Beauty. Indigenous Australians have burned the bush regularly for thousands of years. Picture: Getty Images

It’s time for some fresh thinking across a range of issues. All policy actions create interdependent effects, and the systems we seek to manage are complex. This is particularly so in relation to the environment. Our attention is drawn, repeatedly, to symptoms of environmental stress: rampant bushfires, fish kills, dams gone dry, pile-ups of un-recycled materials.

We pay attention at the time, and some changes are made. The problem is that the well-intentioned actions we take are often not the right ones, because, while many Australians care about our environment, too few of us understand sufficiently the strange and beautiful country in which we are privileged to live. Too much of our thinking assumes a kind of magical ecological modernisation. “We must build more wind and solar farms”, we chorus, “we must grow vegies in rooftop gardens, ride electric bikes to work”.

These actions might bring a warm inner glow. But they do little to address the underlying problems, which derive from our continuing failure to understand, still less to act upon, the nature of Australia’s environment, and the constraints that this should place upon us all.

The only people who truly understood the country we inhabit, free of European preconceptions, were Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians trod lightly upon the land, but they also managed it for food production. They burned the bush regularly, in ways that derived from a deep knowledge of their dependence upon the natural world for food production.

I am not arguing we should try to return the country to the way it was before white settlement. Traditional Indigenous systems of food production would not be adequate for a population of 25 million people. But we should review what we have done in the light of what we know worked for Indigenous Australians. To come up with credible policies, we need to acknowledge the systemic character of the challenges we face.

It is difficult to think of a more perverse set of practices than many of those we currently pursue. Take water management. The fundamental problem with the Murray Darling basin is that we have asked too much of it. Unfortunately, in trying to fix the problem, we have arguably made matters worse. Marketising water use has proved to be quite disastrous, because the “higher value” uses do not reflect the environmental costs they impose. Ignoring the people who have lived longest in the basin’s many catchments and sub-catchments – Aboriginal communities, graziers, small-scale irrigators, and water managers who really knew how to ‘run the river’ – has taken us backwards, not forwards.

Wild brumbies in the Kiandra high country, NSW. Photo by Karleen Minney.
Wild brumbies in the Kiandra high country, NSW. Photo by Karleen Minney.

We love our national parks. Without them, and the people who fought so hard for them, we would all be worse off. But we are not managing our national parks well, and we are not thinking hard enough about the relationship between the areas we have managed to preserve and the needs of the landscapes around them.

We are particularly poor at involving local people in decision-making, which has led to unfortunate results. To take one example, removing grazing from the high country national parks in New South Wales and Victoria has not improved the condition of the country because one introduced animal has been replaced by another. Traditional graziers controlled feral horse numbers, because brumbies competed with their cattle for food. Kicking the cattle and their owners out of the parks has resulted in an explosion in the brumby population. These are un-owned animals, much more mobile than cattle, and the damage they have done would make you weep.

Highly speculative schemes such as Snowy 2.0 should also make you weep. The first Snowy Scheme was hardly an ecological triumph, but the people who built it were not trying to achieve environmental goals. Those promoting Snowy 2.0 have no such excuse. The obsession with renewables and, in this case, a hugely expensive pumped hydro scheme to support energy reliability, will damage the already-vulnerable Kosciuszko National Park through land clearing and the need to dispose of vast amounts of spoil generated by tunnelling.

We know that ecological systems do not stop and start at park boundaries. Almost all Australian landscapes have been degraded by inappropriate land use and by pest species. In the more arid areas, delicate vegetation around water courses is trampled by large feral animals such as camels and in more temperate zones by pigs. The small native animals that did so much to keep soils of all kinds intact have been all but eliminated by feral cats.

Sustainable farming practices take the pressure off the land and over time may actually lower costs of production. But more effort is required to bring about change. More knowledge is needed and above all, more resources need to be made available. The market-based trend towards bigger and bigger holdings is not necessarily a move in the wrong direction, provided owners are committed to sustainability. But simply expanding poor practice across bigger and bigger areas because costs are lower is no help.

Building a house with an EER rating of 6 when a bush block has been razed to do it is a step backwards, not forwards.

We need to consider our own numbers as well. We simply cannot keep deliberately building up human populations in our most fertile areas. Considered in terms of environmental damage, Australia’s least sustainable industry is not farming or even mining, but property development.

Building a house with an EER rating of 6 when a bush block has been razed to do it is a step backwards, not forwards. Trees are being removed to make way for enormous stand-alone houses that leave no room even for a basic garden. Instead of encouraging developers to mine urban amenity for profit, councils and state and territory governments should be working with developers, regulating where necessary, to retain precious landscape values.

Changed thinking is one thing but where is the money to come from? One option worth considering might be a 2 per cent across-the-board import tax. At a rough estimate, such a tax might raise $5-6 billion a year. The impact on prices would be relatively small, and more importantly, a new stream of revenue would be established which might be used to fund broad-scale, federally-administered programs of environmental amelioration.

Think of what could be achieved with a fresh source of income such as this. The funds could, for example, be used to do something decisive about feral pests. A well-directed national effort to reduce predation pressure, working with landholders, government agencies and local authorities, would encourage the return of small native animals and birds to large areas from which they have long been absent.

In addition, there would be sufficient capital for state and local governments, with the involvement of local stakeholders, to begin buying threatened bushland with the aim of building-up a national system of varied, productive and bio-diverse nature reserves. With the cooperation of the states, we could even properly fund the maintenance of the national parks we already have. The many farmers who wish to regenerate soils that have been ploughed and fertilised to death could be assisted to do so.

Undoing the mistakes of the past will be expensive. There is no magical remedy for the damage that has been done. If we continue to fight the land by building more dams, houses and apartments, while pinning our environmental hopes on renewables alone, we will never progress very far towards sustainability.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times 3 Dec 19

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