Australia's Environment

Australia's Environment

Introduction

For those of us who live in Australia, and anybody who has visited, its most striking aspect is the vast wealth of natural resources we are blessed with. From snow-capped mountains to tropical and temperate rainforests, to diminished but still vast wildernesses and searing deserts, we really are a microcosm of the global picture. More than two centuries have gone by since the English invasion of this country, and in that time we have wreaked untold damage, many times more than the Aboriginals with at least forty thousand years of hunting and firestick farming. Some of this damage is irreparable, some may be redressed over time, and some continues and needs to be stopped. This article is hoping to identify the major environmental problems this country faces, their causes, their realities.

Landclearing

Clearing of the land is claiming it. When settlers from Great Britain came to Australia the land must have seemed infinite. People for whom land may once have been a dream, could simply go out and stake out as much of it as they wished. Of course in order for land to be "useful" for crops, livestock or any other form of agriculture the first traditional European step is to clear it of all vegetation. Noble trees whose descendants inhabited the area from the dawn of time, hacked down to expedite the straight path of the plough, or more often to make it easier for livestock to be herded. They knew no better and they struggled with this land, unaccustomed to its dry soil and hard timbers.

A concerted effort was made to transform as much of this country to the livestock and vegetation similar to that which they had known in Great Britain, partly due to their love for a land they would invariably have preferred not to leave, but mostly like so much ill in our world for economic reasons. They did not understand this country's soils, unlike the lush, moist and fertile glacial soils of Europe. They found it difficult to cultivate their accustomed plants and vegetables, and they did not have the inclination to change or understand the native food sources. The methods they employed to glean a living from the land, making alien species prosper in a land for which evolution never intended them, have in the end proved to have wounded and scarred the land.

The trees which are seemingly the first thing to go in any development, have proved to be the greatest of our non-native Australian environmental crimes. Australian trees are perfectly adapted for their harsh environment, hardy, strong and deep-rooted. They act like huge pumps, drawing sustenance and moisture from the water table. They provide habitat, hold the soil together and shield the earth from the worst excesses of the sun and the driving winds. Today in Australia land clearing continues unabated, as ever mostly for livestock. What they were doing in cutting down these trees was halting the pumping action of the water from the water table by the trees. The water table rose higher and higher bringing salt to the surface level. This level of salt is intolerable for most plant life, and not only did the farmers have to forsake growing their crops on it, but natural regeneration was virtually impossible. This end result of this process is called "Soil Salinity" and is half of the greatest environmental crime committed in this country, the cutting down of our native bush. An article from the Reuters world news service is an example of the problems being caused by salinity:

Rising salt levels along Australias greatest river system are undermining country roads, eating into house foundations and laying waste to large strips of farmland, according to a report published Friday. The problem is so bad that if it continues unchecked residents in South Australian state capital Adelaide could soon be drinking water with salt levels above World Health Organization recommendations. The process started 150 years ago when settlers first began clearing trees to set up farms along the Murray-Darling river system in southern Australia. As trees are cleared along rivers, water tables rise, bringing salt naturally present in the ground up to the surface. The salt contaminates agricultural land and is washed into rivers by rainfall. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission audit found salinity increases in the next 20 to 50 years would cause problems for irrigators, the environment and regional infrastructure.

The second ramification of this clearing of native trees was that the soil was no longer shielded from the worst excesses of the Australian sun and wind. It has taken us over a century to understand that Australian topsoils are not thick loam-like in Europe where most of our farming techniques were adapted from, instead Australian topsoils are thin, fragile and dry. Similar to the famous "dust bowl" effect which happened in America (where exactly the same sort of farming practises were instituted ie. deforest everything), the topsoil simply dried up and was blown away. Not having the inexhaustible nutrients of the glacial soils of Europe, the continual resowing of the topsoil simply drained it of its life-giving properties. The effect of this annihilation of native trees across Australia has been farmers watching the soil literally erode beneath their feet. This effect is called "Soil Erosion".

Sensing the lack of viability of the industries farmers and their families have been working in since European invasion, Australian farmers have been one of the premier lobby groups through the National Party, for reform in the form of a programme called LandCare. LandCares problems are many and varied, their primary flaw being that much of the effort is put into enabling the continuation of current farming practises. There have been some successes, namely with the replanting of trees, but little has been done to change the massive monocultural regimes that destroyed the soil in the first place. Chemicals, nutrients and so forth, are only staving off the problem for future generations to deal with, trusting science to solve a problem that simply replanting the land with the species evolution designed for it would achieve. Even given these flaws in Landcare, many farmers simply aren't interested in changing the way they do things, confident that if things get bad the government will step in to subsidise the changing of their practices.

Techniques such as 'permaculture', a phrase coined by Australian Bill Mollison, have been shown to work and are being exported to countries all over the world in conjunction with their governments. It is time our government took notice of these techniques which will ensure a viable future for this land which is already populated, like much of the earth, far beyond sustainable levels. Industrial-scale farming may make economic sense, but in every other aspect, it is an inefficient and destructive system.

Chemical Cocktail

How do you grow crops in an environment for which they were never intended? How do you grow vast monocultural crops as far as the eye can see, without causing plagues of insects and without causing total depletion from the soil of nutrients needed for their growing cycle?

The answer is that you find unnatural ways of manipulating the environment to make them grow. One of the most expedient ways of achieving this is to use chemicals to force plants and animals to grow in the way in which you intended and to control the unwanted aspects of their environment such as insects. As previously stated the Australian soil has far fewer nutrients and topsoil depth than that of the European continent, where most of our farming practices are derived from. When a plant is growing, it uses nutrients within the soil to fulfil its function of growing and reproducing itself. When the plant withers away, its fruit drops and rots or is eaten by an animal. Its nutrients return to the soil and slowly biodegrade into compost continually reforming a reproductive soil. This is how nature has worked since time immemorial, however, humans no longer work with these methods. When the prime parts of the plant, the fruit and seed which all the nutrients have been sapped out of the soil to create, comes to fruition, it is harvested and taken to the cities or other parts of the world to be sold. Effectively it is like a pump of nutrients from the depleted countryside, destined for the landfills of suburbia. Compost heaps are a more favourable alternative (in that they produce fewer greenhouse gases), but it is still contributing to the nutrient drain of the countryside, far better that the plants on your compost heap came from the garden around it.

Of course, there are a number of ways that this problem might potentially be treated, but humans and current farming practises being what they, instead they look to science to produce chemical cocktails of nutrients and fertilizers to replace the normal functioning of the depleted soil. These nutrients leech through the soil an invariably find their way into the water table where amongst other things they are contributing to the infestation of imported weeds, choking our waterways fed on their diet of synthetic nutrients. The Great Barrier reef is one of their more famous unintended victims. Many plants would never be able to grow in the first place without the intervention of science. One example is cotton. It has been a major crop for as long as people have used its fibres for the making of their clothes and other products. Australian has vast farms producing cotton both for local and export markets, however not many people are aware of how badly adapted cotton is to the Australian environment. In order to make up for the inability of this alien species to grow in this climate a wealth of chemicals is used in its production. Indeed cotton will not grow in this country without an array of chemicals used in every stage of its growing cycle, from seedling to opening the cotton for harvesting. Cattle in nearby farms have had to be put down after government residue checks showed high levels of insecticide within them, which has leeched through the water table from cotton crops. Insecticides that people end up consuming, as an invisible Trojan horse in their meat. Cotton is available cheaply and abundantly from overseas, perhaps in places more suited to growing it, where the level of chemical use need not be so high.

DDT is an excellent example of the long-lasting pervasiveness of chemicals being used to fertilize and pesticide our food. DDT is a chemical popular with farmers around the world, which they only stopped using under threat of law, even after its well known toxic effects became apparent. It is still used in some developing countries, sold to them by transnational corporations who know intimately of its side effects but continue to sell it (along with other toxic and environmentally damaging substances) for a profit regardless. It is a cheap way of controlling mosquitoes in malaria-infested regions, however, there are far less damaging methods that work out cheaper in the end if your factor in the true cost of DDT's effects on our environment. Within a few decades of DDT first being used, studies found it in animals in Antarctica which had never been exposed to any form of human interaction, and in the breast milk of women in the Papua New Guinean highlands, people who had never seen a European person, much less a chemically induced farm or eaten anything not grown locally. An Australian farmer who wished to eat fish without the many and varied chemicals found in the ocean decided to set up an aquacultural fish farm (another environmentally damaging farming method). He wanted to ensure they were completely free of chemicals and the farmer he bought a property from had owned it for seven years and had never used chemicals of any kind. So after investing large amounts of money in his fish farm, he eventually got it up and running and presently harvested his first batch of organic fish. He sent them off to a laboratory to be analysed, in order to ratify his claim that they were organic. The result he received was that the fish had hazardous levels of DDT in them, and were not fit for human consumption. Even at least eight years after these toxic chemicals had been used they were still manifest within the soil, chemicals which had been blessed by the Australian government to be used on food for the general population.

Short term market forces are desecrating our countryside, and the land and its people are becoming chemically overloaded. We need the true cost of environmentally damaging factors included in the prices on our supermarket shelves, that way consumers who choose to do the right thing aren't subsidising the people who don't care about a viable future.

The Urbanised Nation

Australians have a perception of themselves as a country involved with the bush. This belies the reality that Australia is one of the most urbanised nations in the world. Further to this perception of the dry red earth and the Akubra hat, the vast majority of Australians are clustered around the coastal fringes. Spreading their cities, roads and cement over the most fertile, and some of the most beautiful land in the country.

When settlers invaded Australia they naturally made communities in the lushest, most fertile country they could find, around the best rivers. Two hundred years later we have turned these oases into concrete jungles. In clustering around the cities, we dramatically increase many problems for our environment. Depleting the countryside of nutrients in transferring the fruit of its soils to our landfills, requiring the burning of fossil fuels to transport produce and keep it fresh, concentrating our garbage, pollution and sewerage into small centres. Using the land in ways which exclude native wildlife and vegetation, our cities are a desert for the natural landscape of this continent.

Communities are efficient forms of social interaction and human habitation, however, the extent to which Australians have taken urban living is far beyond its worth to our society. Metropolises of the size of our largest cities have gone infinitely beyond their ability to be self-sufficient, thereby draining their surrounding environment of resources, and their environmental impact reaches far beyond their urban sprawl. Of course, having vast movements of the populace to desecrate other areas of wilderness is equally as abhorrent.  Rather we should extend existing urban centres to appropriate levels, redesign the way we house and feed ourselves in an urban environment, and utilize and renew areas of the country of low environmental diversity. Living in smaller, less crowded communities will hopefully produce a number of benefits.

Before this is possible we need to address many of the transport and infra-structure inequalities between rural and urban services and work on our information infrastructure so that people aren't tied to urban skyscrapers as they often are now. There is a precedent for this transferral of people from the city to the country.  Troops returning from the first world war were given plots of land to work with their families called selections. This scheme was not very successful as many of the families had little or no skills in working the land, and the government did not provide adequate support. However, using this as a precedent rather than a model, people could be encouraged through the offering of cheap land and the building of infrastructure to take the burden off our fertile cities. It could be done using people with an environmentally responsible attitude under government assistance and extended or improved as necessary. Community leaders and other systems of stewardship and participatory democracy could take the administration off politicians, and give it back to the people where it belongs. We need a model for the development of cities, and perhaps with the resources a government could put behind this sort of initiative, we would create a city where people and our native species can live in harmony.  The sort of place that would remind people that life is about more than pursuing created wants.

We need to deal with the urbanization of our country in some way so that a sustainable future can be assured, and so that our population can be aligned to our potential resources. Whether this method or another becomes utilised, it is something we have to look towards.

Water, Water Everywhere

The ancient Greeks hypothesised that water was the key to life, the element on which all others rested.  Two thousand years later N.A.S.A. is of the belief that to have life on another planet, one of the strongest indicators will be the presence of water. Water is vital to life on this earth, and whilst people argue about the use of resources such as oil and gas, the one which may matter most to our ongoing prosperity will be clean water. We are draining our earth to the peril of our continued existence.

Australia is the driest continent on earth. Despite this, we have for two hundred years been attempting to replicate crops and farming practises familiar to our predominantly European ancestors. It has not been without vast efforts of irrigation that many parts of the continent have been made fruitful, on a scale suitable to justify otherwise economically unviable farming practices. However, water is not an infinite resource and the chemicals and salt that our inefficient farming practises have pumped into our water is making it ever scarcer. The Murray Darling is becoming so overused, that the mighty torrent which one flowed into the sea can't even keep the sand from inhibiting its flow, it only does so now with the help of sand pumps.

The United Nations study on the world's rivers found that we are in the midsts of a global crisis, that there were only one or two healthy major river systems in the world, with none in Australia. We have either dammed, drained, polluted and overfished every major river system in the country, often a combination of these things. The vast artesian wells on which much of our farming relies, are being depleted at an unbelievable rate, so far from their ability to replenish themselves that some which have existed below the surface for millions of years, could soon be started to run out. Studies have shown much of the water is simply wasted, because farmers have taken the resource for granted. There are ways to replenish artesian wells by trapping groundwater, but there is no initiative or incentive to do this from farmers or regulatory bodies.

As for animals, our effect on them by destroying their rivers has been catastrophic. I visited a farmer living next to a piggery, and the stream which used to run through his land providing habitat for platypus and other native species has simply been diverted to provide water and flush the waste from the piggery, leaving the riverbed just dry hardened dirt on his property. The water is then simply left to leech down a neighbouring slope and back into the groundwater.

Every dam in Australia is a death sentence for any medium to large size fish that needs to migrate to breed, it also limits the breeding pools of smaller fish, undermining genetic diversity.

The Australian lifestyle also has to change. It takes many times more water to produce the equivalent amount of animal protein as it does plant protein, yet Australia, the driest continent on Earth, has one of the most meat-rich diets of any nation. A huge amount of water in suburban areas goes on watering lawns, washing down driveways, hosing down cars instead of using buckets, letting the tap run whilst you do things like brush your teeth, pumping sewerage, much of it harmless like dish-water goes into the ocean which could be usefully used on suburban gardens.

The sad fact about most of the ways we act is that they are so needless, we rob future generations for little gain ourselves. On an island continent with its inhabitants clustered around the coastal fringe, the most expedient way of getting rid of waste is pumping it out to sea. Of course, the tides will disperse the pollution and much of it will come back to the shore, so as the output increases in capital cities something has to be done about the polluted beaches. People don't want to swim in water containing their own effluent. Modern technologies answer to this dilemma is to extend the pipeline further out from shore, thereby marginally improving the quality of the water, the visible quality at least. We don't think it's healthy for humans to live in their own filth, but we are happy to pump it into the environment of our unfortunate aquatic neighbours. This method of waste disposal is primarily reserved for liquid waste, for some reason people don't like dealing with the aesthetics of their garbage floating down a river or in the sea, but liquids aren't as obvious.

An example of the side effects of this form of sewerage disposal can be found in Moreton Bay, in Queensland. The area is well known for its aquatic life particularly the darling of the public (because its a creature that can do tricks) dolphins, however, it is no longer home to one of the most serene of sea creatures, the highly endangered dugong. The amount of sewerage being pumped into the bay has reached such a high ratio within the water, that there is no longer enough light filtering through the water to the aquatic plants on the floor of the bay. Seagrasses and other edible plants have almost completely disappeared from the bay, thereby drastically reducing the dugongs who once swam in its calm waters in large numbers. The chemicals which have found their way into our water are unbelievable in their toxicity and their quantity.

Prosecutions for the dumping of hazardous waste into our sewers, seas and waterways still continue to this day, but the penalties are often less than the cost of dumping the waste legally. In a world where people are actually dying because they don't have clean water, our treatment of this precious resource is unforgivable. Water doesn't 'belong' to any person, or species. It is one of the fundamental foundations of life on our planet, and we need to start treating it as such, Australia, the driest continent on Earth, as much as anywhere else.

Alien Species

When settlers from Great Britain arrived in Australia, they often had no great wish to leave their homeland. Indeed the majority of them were convicts, the only thing that separated them being termed slaves is that they had committed crimes of the calibre of stealing silken handkerchiefs, some were even sent out for things like union activity. Along with them were various British officials required to oversee them, and the formation of the lands which they gave names reminiscent of their homeland and royalty. This being the case they were unwilling to adapt to their new environment excepting that which was completely necessary. So they quickly set about populating the countryside with the rabbits, foxes, sheep, horses, cattle, pigs, goats, dogs, chickens and other staples of the foreign diet. Eventually, they added to these with other misplaced animals such as water buffalo, carp, camels and that great example of human stupidity the cane toad. Then there were the animals that they didn't consciously bring like rats, mice and a host of insects and birds.

This dry land had never known vast heavy herd animals, with their hard hooves they have caused untold damage to the land through soil erosion, and compounding the problem with their eating patterns. We didn't stop there though, suburban gardeners and irresponsible fish tank owners see our bush and lakes covered with invasive species that our native environment has no evolutionary answer for. I spent a very muddy day removing water hyacinth from a suburban pond it had literally choked to the point where you could almost walk across it. What native species could possibly survive is beyond me.

Given how many well-publicised problems we have caused you would expect to see a dramatic change in our laws on the importation of these sorts of species, but you would be wrong. Suburban gardeners are continuing to import ornamental species from around the world, providing habitat for other introduced species, and contributing to the desert that our suburbs are for native animals.  We have such beautiful native species suited to this environment, just makes this more incomprehensible.

Carp are literally infesting many of the nation's waterways along with mosquitofish.  Ships coming from overseas dump their bilge water into our harbours and coastal fringes bringing who knows what into our sea environment, the crown of thorns starfish which devastated so much of the Great Barrier Reef being a prime example. All sorts of bird species out-compete our own, and again are still being imported, whilst all manner of domestic species are still being released into the wild at an alarming rate due to the cost of desexing, and the fact that many people are too lazy or stupid to take unwanted animals to the many pounds in this country (where tens of thousands of beautiful, kind natured but unwanted animals are killed every year). Foxes are an interesting example because it has proved so hard to introduce them. In Tasmania, people are still trying to introduce them for hunting, despite the fact that they surpass almost every other introduced species in their harmfulness to Australia natives. Have we learnt nothing in two centuries of coexisting with this land? Many obviously haven't.

Endangered Species

The greatest crimes that have been committed are of course the species of trees, plants and animals that we have pushed to the edge of extinction and beyond. This is a problem the world over and even today its perpetuation is justified by the unquestioned assumption that another human being on this overpopulated earth, is more important than the last remaining few of another species. History will remember what we do now, whether we are yet another generation in the dark ages, or we are the one that finally managed to break free of its selfishness and give other beings the same chance to life many hold so precious for humanity.

An artist recently wanted to cover a room in the names of species we have extincted and ones facing extinction, she ended up being unable to find room to put them all. The European settlement of this country (and some evidence shows, to a lesser extent the Aboriginal settlement) has been an apocalyptic period for the flora and fauna of this land. Animals which had survived millions of years on this dry harsh land, could not survive two hundred at the hands of the European invaders. Australia has the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world.

There are any number of species on the brink as you read this, that are only being kept alive by artificial means, alienated and barred from environments that they survived in for millions of years before our culture invaded this land. To digress for a moment, one really has to see the amazing beauty of these animals, from tiny delicate marsupials, like gliders and bilby's, brightly coloured amphibians, fish like the hugs Murray Cod, reptiles, snakes, lizards and many, many beautiful birds like the night parrot and the black cockatoo. Even the wombat and koala, such cherished adorable symbols of our bush, are ever decreasing in numbers as their habitat disappears.

Whilst paintings worth millions hang protected in our galleries, the true cultural heritage, the unique continent that plays such a large part in identifying us as who we are, is ravaged and in decline. Although I have been talking about non-human animals, spending a few years of my youth in Tasmania I can't help thinking about the genocide of the Tasmanian Aboriginals. Hearing the horrors of what they went through, an entire people who exist no more, killed for economic purposes, what might they say about our culture today? If I had the chance I know what I might say to them, something the non-human species we disregard in our emptiness wouldn't understand, something our government for a long time refused to do, say 'sorry'. Extinction is forever, whatever misguided cloning advocates might say, a species, a being is more than a collection of atoms, a physical structure, something which is as worthy if it exists in the wild as if it exists in a zoo. It is an idea, a thought, an existing freedom, and with every species our selfishness destroys, we commit crimes we don't seem to have the understanding to comprehend.

Conclusion

So how do you stop this exploitation of our land? Some suggestions might be to write to papers, politicians, corporations, tell people what you think they should be doing. There are some great organisations, the Wilderness Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation, etc, that really need your time and support. The most important thing to do to help keep our precious land beautiful, is.....something, anything.  Make a habit of working for positive change, the bilby's, the black cockatoo's, the feather tailed gliders, the Tasmanian Aboriginals and I, will all thank you.

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