Australia has national environment laws – the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). Yet given the staggering rates of land clearing taking place, resulting in the extinction and endangerment of plants and animals in Australia, these laws are clearly not working.
About 395,000 hectares of regrowth and old growth vegetation were cleared during 2015-16 in Queensland. Australia is set to clear up to 3 million hectares of native forest by 2030, and more than 1,800 plant and animal species are currently listed as threatened nationally.
When the EPBC Act was first implemented in 1999, the idea was for it to provide reinforced federal environmental protection to areas of national environmental significance. But in reality, many projects that come within the ambit of the Act are not rigorously evaluated for their environmental impact.
Why isn’t the EPBC Act working?
Deforestation and excessive land clearing fundamentally impacts existing biodiversity, damages fragile ecosystems, destroys wildlife habitat, and increases greenhouse gas emissions. In Queensland, where much of the land clearing is taking place, the state law (Vegetation Management Act) is not strong enough to diminish incentives for land clearing. Yet the national environmental laws have not provided greater protection.
There are several reasons for this. While land clearing is indirectly regulated by the EPBC Act due to the significant impact it can have on the environment, land clearing is not directly addressed by the EPBC Act.
As it stands, land clearing will only attract EPBC Act application where it can be established that it impacts a directly protected entity such as a World Heritage area, Ramsar wetland, threatened species, ecological community, or migratory species. If this connection cannot be established, no environmental assessment under the EPBC Act will occur.
Even where projects do attract the application of the EPBC Act, its capacity to advance best practice environmental impact assessment is highly questionable. One of the biggest problems is that the process of assessment is insufficiently robust.
This problem is evident in other environmental issues too. Where a bilateral state and federal assessment is approved, as was the case with the Adani coalmine, the federal department often relies on state counterparts to undertake a thorough environmental assessment. Many of the proposals evaluated by state departments are assessed with reference to the least onerous environmental impact assessment available.
This documentation is generally prepared by the project proponent. Unsurprisingly, as a consequence, many of the projects that are evaluated under the EPBC Act are approved, subject to the imposition of environmental conditions. This means the environmental conditions need to be carefully monitored if environmental protection is to be optimised.
This creates a new set of problems. Where a breach is alleged, it must be proved and appropriate sanctions enforced. In reality, this rarely happens, and the sanctions that are imposed can be woefully inadequate. For example, Adani was fined A$12,000 for breaching an environmental condition relating to the release of coalwater in Abbott Point coal terminal, which flowed into the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands.
The substantive problem with the EPBC Act is that its implementation is subject to departmental discretion and therefore the vagaries of government administration. This is particularly problematic given the political nature of many of these decision-making processes.
Lack of rigorous scrutiny
In circumstances where, for example, there is a need to challenge the approval of a resource title in light of its environmental consequences, the EPBC Act relies heavily on environmental groups or other third parties to scrutinise the federal decision-making process.
For example, the Australian Conservation Foundation took strong action in challenging the issuance of the mining licence for Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine. It argued the endangered species and climate change impacts were insufficiently taken into account by the then Environment Minister Greg Hunt in exercising discretion under the EPBC Act.
The case was dismissed because the Federal Court found that this decision was authorised by the discretions included within the EPBC Act. The minister was therefore within his power to decide not to take account of the climate change impacts of such a vast new coalmine. This is concerning given the profound impact that climate change can have upon fragile ecologies in areas of national environmental significance.
These findings indicate a lack of preparedness by the federal minister to accept a causal connection between climate change and domestic coal production, and to focus on narrow jurisdictional boundaries and strict domestic obligations. It also strongly highlights the deficiencies of our national environment act because the existing triggers do not address some of the most important environmental concerns of the modern world.
New environment laws urgently needed
Climate change is almost universally accepted as one the most serious environmental threats. Yet the EPBC Act does not include a climate change trigger (or a land clearing trigger, as discussed above).
This means these key threats to Australia’s environment will not be protected by EPBC Act. They may attract the EPBC Act indirectly, but only if it can be established that they raise a different trigger that is listed under the Act. This calls into question the capacity of our national environment laws to truly protect areas of national environmental significance.
In order to reverse unacceptable rates of land clearing, preserve ecosystems and habitats and diminish greenhouse gas emissions, a new framework for our national environment act is urgently needed.
Biophilic design is beginning to boom. Witness its recent incorporation into the Melbourne Metro project and Sydney’s award-winning One Central Park, Chippendale. Given the increasing popularity of this urban design technique, it’s time to take a closer look at the meaning of nature and its introduction into our cities.
Nature is good for our mental well-being, numerous scientific studies tell us. This flood of research begins in 1984 with E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, in which he hypothesises a gene that necessities our love of life and life-like processes. However, a genetic basis for biophilia has not been identified, and the value of a genetic argument for our attraction to nature has been questioned.
More recently, theorists have broadened the definition of biophilia to encompass the benefits of human-nature interaction. And it seems governments and industry are listening. Cities everywhere are embracing the change.
I’ve spoken to numerous city dwellers over the years who tell me they find nature unsettling, if not terrifying. It’s mainly the isolation and silence they find overwhelming, particularly if they have spent their life in densely populated cities such as New York or Hong Kong. This sensation is captured by the term biophobia, a fear of nature.
While biophilia theorists acknowledge biophobia, it is rare to find this reflected in the work of biophilic designers whose work risks downplaying the complex ways in which we experience nature. After all, the feel-good message of biophilia is an easy sell. But if we can both love and fear nature we should ask ourselves: what is the source of these powerful emotional responses? And is the introduction of biota and abiota the only way we can elicit such experiences?
Art and nature
The philosopher Henri Lefebvre called the city a “second nature”. Given that every aspect of our cities, including ourselves, originated in what we refer to as nature this makes perfect sense. More obscurely, Lefebvre writes that in the creation of second nature we should produce “urban space, both as a product and as a work, in the sense in which art created works”.
To understand this we must consider the question: how does art make works? We might say that every artwork is unique in its making – no two artworks (assuming we don’t consider reproductions to be artworks) are the same. Similarly, nature’s creations are distinct: no two snowflakes are the same, every dawn is different etc.
In the creation of a second nature, Lefebvre challenges us to produce cities just as art produces work, so that our built environment might be as diverse as nature. Therefore, the production of a second nature is as much the responsibility of art as it is of design and architecture. If we are to create urban spaces rich in creative expression, then we should embrace this insight as much as possible.
A challenge to the creation of a second nature is to contend with the rules, regulations and controls of city bureaucracies that struggle to make room for creativity. Under these conditions, nature as introduced by biophilic designers is more likely to be applied as a functional agent, manicured and arranged, utilised for the production of more efficient workers and stress-free urban dwellers. But is it the purpose of nature to service such functional needs?
Wildness – a derivative of wilderness – is a term familiar to biophilia theorists. For instance, Timothy Beatley talks about the wildness of nature bursting through the cracks of the urban. New York’s High Line self-seeded landscape is a rare celebration of such growth, usually considered unkempt areas of the urban. Even Wilson, an epitome of scientific reductionism and mechanistic thought, speaks of a “spirit” interwoven between nature and ourselves, which must be preserved.
So, what is this spirit, this wildness we crave when we speak of nature? I would speculate that this wildness, or spirit, celebrated by biophilic theorists is the very same experience that sometimes terrifies our city dweller. It is the uncontrollable force of nature – always striving to exist, enabling it to appear everywhere and stirring our senses into states of wonder and awe.
In the creation of second nature, we should acknowledge that art has an equally powerful role to play in producing wildness. For instance, well-executed public art can be a source of wonder, imagination, contemplation and transformation. These are all experiences valued by biophilic practitioners.
Towards second nature
We should encourage the growth of biophilic design in our cities. But if the nature we desire is, in fact, its expression as untamed wildness, then we should turn to art as much as we do to the elements of the natural world when designing and building our cities. Emerging infrastructure projects should consider the role of artists in directing human experience towards an urban wildness, which celebrates the creativity of nature.
Let’s build cities that celebrate the wild, not just efficiency and productivity.
A magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck the Southern Highlands region of Papua New Guinea on February 25, 2018. This was followed by a series of aftershocks, producing widespread landslides that have killed dozens and injured hundreds. The same landslides have cut off roads, telecommunications and power to the area.
The PNG government has declared a state of emergency in the region. There is growing concern over several valleys that have been dammed by landslides and are beginning to fill with water – now ready to collapse and surge downstream, directly towards more villages.
Why is Papua New Guinea so susceptible to landslides? It’s a combination of factors – steep terrain, earthquakes and aftershocks plus recent seasonal rains have created an environment that is prone to collapse.
How land becomes unstable
The Earth around us is generally pretty stable, but when the ground shakes during an earthquake it can start to move in ways we don’t expect.
Pressure changes during an earthquake create an effect in the soil called liquefaction, where the soil itself acts as a fluid.
When lots of water is present in the soil, as is the case now during the monsoon season in Papua New Guinea, liquefaction can happen even more easily.
When liquefaction occurs, the earthquake creates changes due to friction. Imagine a visit to the greengrocer, where an accidental bumping of a carefully stacked pile of apples can cause cause them all to suddenly collapse. What was holding the pile together was friction between the individual apples – and when this disappears, so does the pile.
In an earthquake, two tectonic plates slip past one another deep underground, rubbing together and cracking the nearby rocks. The effects of this movement up at the surface can vary depending on the nature of the earthquake, but one feature is fairly common: small objects bounce around. The sand grains just below the surface do the same thing, but a bit less excitedly. A few metres down, grains could be bouncing around just enough to lose contact with each other, removing the friction, and becoming unstable.
Things are normally stable because they’re sitting on top of something else. When that support suddenly disappears, things tend to fall down – this is the classic dodgy folding chair problem experienced by many.
In engineering, we call this “failure” – and in the building industry it usually occurs immediately before the responsible engineer receives a call from a lawyer. Mechanically, this failure happens when the available friction isn’t enough to support the weight of the material above it.
When soil acts like fluid
Once a slope fails, it starts to fall downhill. If it really slides, then we’re back to the same situation of grains bouncing around. Now, none of the grains are resting against each other, and the whole thing is acting like a fluid.
A couple of interesting things happen at this point. First, as the grains are bouncing around, small particles start to fall through all the newly formed holes that have opened up. This occurs for the same reason that you find all the crumbs at the bottom of your cereal box, and all of the unpopped kernels at the bottom of your bowl of popcorn. Once these smaller fragments accumulate at the bottom of the flowing landslide, they can help it slide more easily, accelerating everything and increasing its destructive power.
Second, landslides typically flow faster at the surface than below, so as large particles accumulate at the top they are also the ones moving the fastest, and they start to collect at the front of the landslide. These large particles, often boulders and trees, can be incredibly damaging for any people or structures in their path.
The image above shows a laboratory simulation of a landslide flowing down a slope and hitting a fixed wall. The spherical particles are coloured by size (small is yellow; large is blue). Data from these sorts of studies can help predict the forces that an object will feel if it gets hit by a landslide.
Watching and waiting
These complex dynamics mean that we really need to know a lot about the geography and geology of a particular slope before any kind of reliable prediction could be made about the behaviour of a particular landslide.
In the remote areas of Papua New Guinea, accumulating this data at every point on every slope is a tough challenge. Luckily, huge advancements have recently been made in remote sensing, so that planes and satellites can be used to extract this vital information.
Using sophisticated sensors, they can see past foliage and map the ground surface in high resolution. As satellites orbit quite regularly, small changes in the surface topography can be monitored. Scientists hope that by using this information, unstable regions that haven’t yet failed can be identified and monitored.
Papua New Guinea is located on an active fault line and has had nine major earthquakes in the past five years. Combined with the often remote and steep terrain, together with a monsoon season that delivers repeated heavy rainfall events, it is a particularly active area for landslides to develop.
The dry season in Papua New Guinea will not arrive until June. During the current wet season we may see even more slopes fail due to destabilisation by the recent earthquakes.