Lost Connections

UPDATE (31 August 2015)

This article was originally written in 2009, and where "Draft Climate Change Adaptation Framework” was mentioned, it is now "Prospering in a Changing Climate - a climate change adaptation framework for South Australia”. Accordingly, reference to the updated document has now been used.

Consider also the title … “Prospering in a Changing Climate”. This is presumptive of course, and puts a gloss on a bad news story. In South Australia, it is likely to be very difficult to prosper economically in the face of what the world is trending towards, a 4C rise in temperature. SA will not be spared under such a scenario.

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In South Australia, more than 50 million hectares (51% of the State's area of 98.3 million ha) was used for “agriculture" in 2006-07 (ABS – Agricultural State Profile, SA 2006-07 ... http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/). 

The gross value of agricultural production in 2006-07 was $3.7 billion, and $4.4 billion in 2005-06. Compare these with the Adaptation Framework figure  … “In 2008/09 the State Gross Food Revenue was $12.3 billion”. Whilst “agricultural production” may not mean the same as “State Gross Food Revenue” (whatever that means), the gap is massive and needs explanation - by others in the know.

Nevertheless, one way or the other, there is a huge economic risk at stake if essential connections between productivity and natural capital are not made.

The Adaptation Framework contains an underlying theme of 'economic advantage' in a climate of adversity, but it misses a fundamental connection. (Even the title uses the word 'Prospering' as if prosperity can be forged from a declining and stressed natural state).

Just as the connection has been made in the Adaptation Framework document between changing climate and risks to agricultural production, so must there be a connection of these with the destruction of the mallee landscapes and other woodland/grassy landscapes in the ranges and plains of the state, including loss of biodiversity. There have been copious numbers of research reports over the years extolling the virtues of revegetation on farms. Sadly, and with few exceptions, these have largely been ignored.

The mindsets of farmer, land user, politician, natural resources manager, local government representative, the general public, need to change if there is any chance of attaining those other lofty goals in the State Strategic Plan. Integrated Vulnerability Assessments (IVA) in the Adaptation Framework will not provide this change.

What do I mean by 'change'? The sacred balance, as David Suzuki writes in his book of the same title, must be returned. Consider water as an example. Most agricultural endeavours in the state have unwittingly removed water from the hydrologic cycle as quickly as possible.

  • Remove vegetation from the landscape and the result is rapid exit of rainfall runoff from a catchment.
  • Resist planting of windbreaks and the result is rapid removal of moisture from crops.
  • Remove native vegetation from the surface and the result is increased evaporation and moisture loss from the soil.

These actions have adversely affected climate at the local and regional scales (see later for discussion on this topic).

Conclusion The Adaptation Framework should have included a good dose of history. It is an understanding of the historical context of this state that is a precursor to tackling the problems confronting the environment today.

What Did The First Settlers Think?

Now consider the following example.

In “A Land Transformed – Environmental Change in South Australia – Ed. C. Nance and D.L. Speight (1986)”, S Barker writes (pg 27):

“Probably the most depressing of the vegetation types, as perceived by settlers, were the endless stretches of mallee, or open-scrubs as we call them today.”

“Explorers and settlers had trouble coming to terms with mallee because it lay in seemingly interminable stretches and had no tall trees which were strong enough to support a man climbing them to get compass bearings.”

The mallee therefore, was seen to having to be conquered. And governments at the time provided requirements and incentives to do so. Here was the start of massive land clearance, and of great disturbance to ecosystems, and the forerunner to a changing climate. No thought was given to the consequences. The land clearance was of epic proportions, and thus became the first root of the big problem today.

Also in “A Land Transformed ...” Nance perhaps provides a sharper focus by stating (pg 204) :

“The European settlers came from Christian countries, and the Bible reinforced the notion that the natural environment should be conquered and controlled for the benefit of mankind.” Nance says that the book of Genesis gave instructions and “the right (or so it was believed) to treat the land, sea, animals and plants in any way (mankind) chose”.

I think there is a reasonable degree of accuracy in this statement. Travel through rural SA and note the abundance of abandoned churches in the landscape. Note the traditional conservative slant accorded the rural sector today. Thus, what has happened to the landscape could be viewed by many rural people as their calling – this view conceivably remains intact today, and that is a compelling reason why little has been done in terms of environmental repair and revegetation. It may not be seen to be necessary. And why would any farmer want to forego land that could be used for agricultural production?

Conclusion  This is a principal issue that the Adaptation Framework did not address.

The Unconscious State

There is a second root to the problem, and is more contentious, and exceedingly more obscure. In a few words, I believe the answer lies in the human condition, the unconscious state. This is a far more compelling reason to me, than any other. Why is it, that what was created from around the 1850's onwards in rural SA, that the results of the “war” on the landscape have largely been ignored? 

 Successive governments, and rural folk, have generally ignored repairing the destruction that has occurred. This is fundamentally a moral issue.

If one travels through the back-roads of rural SA, searches local history, or examines the states historic terms of trade in the agricultural sector, a sense of boom-and-bust is palpable. The natural environment has been largely erased in many areas of the state in the name of 'progress', but when failure has arrived no efforts have been made to restore the damage. Wastelands have resulted.

It seems that what went before is what exists now, and if one is born into a landscape devoid of vegetation, then that is how it has always been. And this may explain a part of the puzzle – it is an antipathy towards recreating a part of the past, long before white man colonised the landscape. Today, the sense of place, of harmony, is but a shell of reality.

David Tacey in “Edge of the Sacred – Transformation in Australia” (1997) provides some support for the historical context, and of reconnecting with the earth and Nature. Tacey writes (pg 66) …

“Is it the Australian unconscious or the landscape that is peculiarly vicious and malign? Or is it, as I suspect, that the distance between spirit and nature, conscious and unconscious has a destructive and enervating effect on human life? When there is no organic connection between spirit and earth, earth rips spirit out of its human context and gives it an earthen death-mask. If Australians do not build a connection between mind and earth in life, a connection will be forced upon them destructively, in death.”

Tacey continues (pg. 71-72) ...

“Conquerors of new lands are themselves eventually conquered by the land, because internally they are racked by self-doubt, plagued by fears, tortured by personal inadequacies. The natural world within and without seems to turn against them.”

“Conquerors of land can find no ultimate solace or fulfilment, no deep satisfaction, if they do not embrace the spirit of place, allowing themselves to connect spiritually, organically, to the world around them.”

“We cannot psychically and physically abuse nature on a grand scale and then expect it to nurture and protect us.”

To my mind, this is a defining statement. It drills into the core of “natural resources” and human exploitation. It diminishes the Biblical reasoning to control and conquer the landscape. And it exposes the gaping hole in “natural resources management”, which today comes across as more about managing what exists, rather than restoring some semblance of balance. 

If there is no embrace of “the spirit of place”, there is only one final journey – it is collapse of ecosystems (or what's left of them), and ultimately death. It has happened before, as witnessed by the retreat of the wheat frontier in the upper Mid North in the 1880's, the decline of dairy farming around Orroroo, the devastated landscape of the Willochra Creek – these are just a few examples. A journey through the Mid North region can reveal many other examples.

Let's now move on to Landscape Change.

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