For the thousand or so farmers in Canberra in the past week venting their anger at the federal government, it’s the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to blame for destroying their livelihoods and forcing them off the land.
We can’t comment directly on their claims about the basin plan. But our research, looking at the years 1991 to 2011, suggests little association between the amount of water extracted from the Murray-Darling river system for irrigation and total farmer numbers.
That’s not to say there aren’t fewer farms in the basin now than a decade ago – there are – but our analysis points to the more important drivers being the longer-term influences of changing climate, economics and demographics.
Indeed our study predicts another 0.5℃ increase in temperature by 2041 will halve the current number of farmers in the basin.
Hostility to water recovery
Over many decades state governments in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia licensed to farmers more entitlements to water than the river system could sustain. The basis of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, enacted in 2012, was to rectify this through buying back about a quarter of all water licences to ensure an environmental flow.
A water entitlement, despite its name, does not guarantee a licence holder a certain amount of water. That depends on the water available, and that is determined by the states, which make allocations to each type of licence based on its type of security and current conditions.
With drought, farmers have seen their allocations severely cut back, sometimes to nothing. And partly because they see there’s still water in the River Murray, some are very angry.
Hostility to water recovery in fact predates the plan’s enactment, to when the federal government began buying back water entitlements in 2008. The Commonwealth now holds about 20% of water entitlements across the basin. More than two-thirds of these licences were recovered between 2008 and 2012.
Lack of correlation
Our research thus covers the period of most significant water buybacks. It also covers the period of the Millennium Drought, from 2001 to 2009, when the amount of water extracted from the river system dropped by about 70%.
Yet we see little evidence reduced water extractions led to more farmers exiting the industry.
As a very broad overview of the situation, the following graph illustrates the lack of correlation between measured water extraction in the Murray-Darling Basin and decreasing farmer numbers.
Water extractions have varied significantly between years, with a big decline over the decade of the 2000s even while farmers’ need for irrigated water increased due to lack of rain. La Niña brought record rains in 2010-11. The current drought across the basin took grip from about 2017.
Yet farmer numbers have declined at a relative steady rate. Within the basin in the time-period we modelled, they fell from about 90,000 in 1991 to 70,000 in 2011. This can be seen as part of a wider trend, with total farmer numbers in the four basin states falling from more than 230,000 in 1976 to barely 100,000 in 2016.
It might be argued that because irrigated farms make up only a quarter of all farms, the overall numbers might mask a greater correlation between water extractions and decline in irrigated farms. While the specific impacts on irrigation farming in recent years warrant further study, there’s no signal in our data pointing to extractions making a discernible contribution to farmer numbers throughout the basin.
Modelling farmer movement
Our findings are based on a specialised data set of population and agricultural census information from statistical local areas from 1991 to 2011. We used climate risk measures from 1961 onwards.
The following infographic shows the exit pattern of farmers by local area between 1991 and 2011.
We included as many climate, economic, farming, water and socio-demographic characteristics as possible to capture historical farmer movements and create a model able to predict movements based on variables such as average temperature.
Need for a multifaceted response
Overall our modelling results suggests the most significant and largest influences on farmer exit are rising temperatures and increased drought risk, followed by the economic factors that have have been reducing the proportion of the population engaged in farming for more than a century.
Declining commodity prices, higher unemployment and urbanisation are strongly associated with farmer exit. Urbanisation, for example, has made it attractive for farmers on city fringes to sell their land to property developers and exit the industry.
Research suggests irrigators in psychological distress are more likely to want the basin plan suspended. Our research suggests their distress is probably not primarily driven by the federal government buying water entitlements from licence holders who sold them willingly. Water recovery and the basin plan is simply an easier focal point of blame than the longer-term trends making the farming lifestyle less viable.
Nothing will be gained by focusing on short-term “fixes” at the cost of longer-term environmental harm. The problems facing all farmers cannot be addressed in isolation from longer-term global climate and economic trends.
As a society we have to decide what we value: do we want to see such a mass exodus of farmers from the land in the face of a drying climate? If not, future policy for the Basin must consider the real long-term drivers of farm exit and take a multi-faceted approach to climate change, water, land, drought and rural development.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
This Friday in the lead-up to the United Nations climate summit, children and adults worldwide will go on strike for stronger action on climate change. However, you may ask, is striking effective? What can it really hope to achieve?
Our research, recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, suggests striking can promote the psychological factors most important for fighting against climate change.
If you’re wondering what you, as an individual, can do to support action against climate change, joining a strike (and asking your friends, family and colleagues to come with you) is a very good start.
From belief to action
In our recent research, we surveyed a large sample of Australians. We asked them how willing they would be to personally act on climate change (for example, pay more for electricity), support social interventions (such as using public funds to give rebates to households that install renewable energy), or take advocacy action (such as send an email to government officials encouraging them to support mitigation policies).
We integrated previous research which suggests that a range of factors influence people’s willingness to act, so we could target the most important variables. These included socio-demographic factors, amount of climate change-related knowledge, personal experience with extreme weather events, and moral values.
Predicting who will act
We found that the three most important variables in predicting an individual’s willingness to act were affect, mitigation response inefficacy, and social norms.
Affect refers to how unpleasant climate change is to you. The influence of affect is well demonstrated by Tongan Prime Minister Samuela “Akilisi” Pohiva shedding tears in front of other leaders during the recent Pacific Islands Forum.
Feeling more negatively about climate change was strongly associated with a greater willingness to act – so should we just try to feel worse about climate change? We already know most Australians are worried about climate change, and the helplessness associated with eco-anxiety suggests that making Australians feel worse would cause more harm than good.
The second most important predictor was mitigation response inefficacy, or “inefficacy” for short. This is the belief that we should not or cannot effectively mitigate climate change, as reflected in statements such as:
Whatever behaviour we, as a nation, engage in to reduce carbon emissions will make no real difference in reducing the negative effects of global warming.
This sentiment is echoed in frequent reminders that Australia accounts for only 1% of global emissions. By suggesting that we cannot have an impact, while conveniently ignoring Australia’s very high per-capita emissions rate, these beliefs put the brake on mitigation action.
So how do we get past the idea that we can’t make a difference?
One way might simply be to remind people how effective collective action can be. For example, compare these two statements:
If one person for a week reduced their TV usage by 20%, then, in total, they would prevent 0.5kg of CO₂ being released into the environment.
If 1,000 people for a week reduced their TV usage by 20%, then, in total, they would prevent 500kg of CO₂ being released into the environment.
Recent research found the second statement is more persuasive and leads to greater pro-environmental and pro-social action. Although individual action alone is just a drop in the bucket, aggregating actions over more people makes the same individual action seem more bucket-sized and thus more effective.
This aggregation effect speaks to the power of the school strike. You may not feel like your voice is heard if you carry a sign alone, but this action becomes much more powerful when you are surrounded by tens of thousands of people doing the same.
Our study found the third most important predictor of willingness to act was social norms. Social norms capture the extent to which people important to you are acting on climate change (descriptive norms) and the extent to which you think those people expect you to act on climate change (prescriptive norms).
For example, the Uniting Church recently passed a resolution to support students and teachers striking. This may signal to these students and staff that attending the strike will be both common and endorsed, increasing their willingness to go along.
Earlier this year, a Lowy Institute poll found Australians rank climate change as the top threat to Australia’s vital interests. But for many of us, it is difficult to think of how we personally can reduce that threat.
Participating in the school strike would be an effective start.
By attending the strike, you will increase the effectiveness of the strike for you and the others around you. And by encouraging your friends and family to go with you, you will promote the social norms that support climate change action.
Today we learnt of yet another remote and formerly pristine location on our planet that’s become “trashed” by plastic debris.
Research published today in Scientific Reports shows some 238 tonnes of plastic have washed up on Australia’s remote Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
It’s not the first time the world has been confronted with an island drowning under debris. Perhaps it’s time to take stock of where we’re at, what we’ve learnt about plastic and figure out whether we can be bothered, or care enough, to do something meaningful.
While the density of debris on Cocos (a maximum of 2,506 items per square metre) was found to be less than that on Henderson Island, the total amount of debris Cocos must contend with is staggering: an estimated 414 million debris items weighing 238 tonnes.
A quarter of the identifiable items were found to be “single-use”, or disposable plastics, including straws, bags, bottles, and an estimated 373,000 toothbrushes.
At only 14 kilometres squared, the entire Cocos (Keeling) Island group is a little more than twice the size of the Melbourne CBD. So it’s hard to envision 414 million debris items in such a small area.
Islands “filter” debris from the ocean. Items flow past and accumulate on beaches, providing valuable information about the quantity of plastic in the oceans.
So, what have these two studies of remote islands taught us?
On Cocos, the overwhelming quantity of debris you can see on the surface accounts for just 7% of the total debris present on the islands. The remaining 93% (approximately 383 million items) is buried below the sediment. Much like the proverbial iceberg, we’re only seeing the very tip of the problem.
Henderson Island, on the other hand, highlighted the terrifying pace of change, from pristine, tropical oasis to being inundated with 38 million plastic items in just two decades.
In the past 12 months alone, scientists have made other, ground-breaking discoveries that have emphasised how little we understand about the behaviour of plastic in the environment and the myriad consequences for species and habitats – including ourselves.
chemicals from degrading plastic in the ocean were found to disrupt photosynthesis in marine bacteria that are important to the carbon cycle, including producing the oxygen for approximately every tenth breath we take
degrading plastic exposed to UV sunlight (such as those on beaches) was reported to produce greenhouse gas emissions, including methane. This is predicted to increase significantly over the next 20 years in line with plastic production trends
microplastic particles are ingested by krill at the base of the marine food web, then fragmented into nano-sized particles
plastic items recovered from the ocean were found to be reservoirs and potential vectors for microbial communities with antibiotic resistant genes
tiny nanoplastics are transported via wind in the atmosphere and deposited in cities and even remote areas, including mountain tops
The educational component is invaluable and they provide an important sense of community. They also prevent large items, like bottles, from breaking up into hundreds or thousands of bite-sized microplastics.
But large-scale clean-ups of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and most other remote islands, are challenging for a variety of reasons. Getting to these locations is expensive, as would be shipping the plastic off for recycling or disposal.
There are also serious biosecurity issues relating to moving plastic debris off islands. Even if we did somehow manage to clean these remote islands, it would not be long before the beaches are trashed again, as it was estimated on Henderson Island that more than 3,500 new pieces of plastic wash up every single day.
As Heidi Taylor from Tangaroa Blue, an Australian initiative tackling marine debris, puts so aptly:
if all we ever do is clean up, that is all we will ever do.
For our clean-up efforts to be effective, they must be paired with individual behaviour change, underpinned by legislation that mandates producers to take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products.
Single-use items, such as razors, cutlery, scoops for coffee or laundry powder and toothbrushes were very common on the beaches of Cocos. Clearly this is an area where extended product stewardship laws (following the principles of a circular economy), coupled with informed consumer choices can lead to better decisions about the types of products we use and how and when we dispose of them.
The global plastic crisis requires immediate and wide-ranging actions that drastically reduce our plastic consumption. And large corporations and government need to adopt a leadership role.
In the EU, for instance, governments voted in March 2019 to implement a ban on the ten most prolific single-use plastic items by 2021. The rest of the world urgently needs to follow suit. Let’s stop arguing about how to clean up the mess, and start implementing meaningful preventative actions.
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.
Last week, in the culmination of a process involving 500 biodiversity experts from over 50 countries, 134 governments negotiated the final form of the Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
IPBES aims to arm policy-makers with the tools to address the relationships between biodiversity and human well-being. It synthesises evidence on the state of biodiversity, ecosystems and natures’ contributions to people on a global scale.
The IPBES Global Assessment provides unequivocal evidence that we need biodiversity for human survival and well-being. To stem unprecedented species decline the assessment sets out the actions governments, the private sector and individuals can take.
Importantly, a whole chapter of the Global Assessment (about one-sixth of the assessment) is dedicated to examining whether existing biodiversity law and policy is adequate. This chapter also outlines ways to address the vortex of biodiversity decline.
If we are to halt the continued loss of nature, then the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely. And this change needs to happen immediately.
What makes IPBES Assessments special?
IPBES is the biodiversity equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Assessments are a fundamental part of IPBES’s work.
IPBES Assessments review thousands of biodiversity studies to identify broad trends and draw authoritative conclusions. In the case of the Global Assessment, IPBES authors reviewed more than 15,000 publications from scientific and governments sources.
Governments and stakeholders give feedback on the draft text, and experts respond meticulously to the thousands of comments before revising and clarifying the draft. A final summary of key findings is then negotiated with member states at plenary meetings – these meetings concluded on Saturday.
What did the Global Assessment find?
Human activity severely threatens biodiversity and ecosystem functions worldwide. About 1 million species are facing extinction. If nothing changes many of these could be gone within just decades.
But nature is vital to all aspects of human health. We rely on natural systems, not only for food, energy, medicine and genetic resources, but also for inspiration, learning and culture.
The report also reveals the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function is much less pronounced on lands managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities. It also recognises the significant role of Indigenous knowledge, governance systems and culturally-specific worldviews which adopt a stewardship approach to managing natural systems.
The report identified agriculture, forestry and urbanisation as the number one reason for biodiversity loss in land-based ecosystems and rivers. In the sea, fishing has had the greatest impact on biodiversity and is exacerbated by changes in the use of the sea and coastal lands.
This is followed closely by:
the direct use of species (primarily through harvesting, logging, hunting and fishing)
the invasion of non-native species.
These factors are aggravated by underlying social values, such as unsustainable consumption and production, concentrated human populations, trade, technological advances, and governance at multiple scales.
The Global Assessment concludes that current biodiversity laws and policies have been insufficient to address the threats to the natural world.
And yet, the Global Assessment has an optimistic outlook. It emphasises that if the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems are transformed then it is possible to achieve a better future for biodiversity and human well-being in the next 30 years.
But this is only possible if reform happens immediately, as incremental change will be insufficient.
What must be done?
The Global Assessment puts forward these next, urgent steps:
we need to redefine human well-being beyond its narrow basis on economic growth
engage multiple public and private actors
link sustainability efforts across all governance scales
elevate Indigenous and local knowledge and communities.
The report also recommends strengthening environmental laws and taking serious precautionary measures in public and private endeavours. Governments must recognise indivisibility of society and nature, and govern to strengthen rather than weaken the natural world.
What can I do?
Produce and consume sustainably
Individuals can make meaningful change through what we produce and what we buy. Our food is an important starting point. You could, for instance, choose local or sustainably produced meals and reduce your food waste.
Champion the inclusion of Indigenous peoples and local communities
Indigenous and local communities need to be included and supported more than ever before. The Global Assessment provides clear evidence that lands managed by Indigenous and local communities are performing better in terms of biodiversity. Still, these lands face serious threats, and Indigenous communities continue to be marginalised around the world.
Provoke governments to do better
Current biodiversity laws and policies don’t adequately address the threats to the natural world. The report recommends the world include biodiversity considerations across all sectors and jurisdictions to prevent further degradation of natural systems. We have an important role in rallying our governments to ensure this occurs.
We are losing biodiversity at record-breaking rates. The majesty of the natural world is disappearing and with it that which makes life worth living. We are also undermining the capacity of the Earth to sustain thriving human societies. We have the power to change this – but we need to act now.
A landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, commissioned at the breakthrough 2015 summit that brokered the Paris climate agreement, outlines what’s at stake in the world’s bid to limit global temperature rise to 1.5℃.
Two and a half years in the making, the report provides vital information about whether the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious goal is indeed achievable, what the future may look like under it, and the risks and rewards of hitting the target.
Here are five key questions to which the report provides answers.
Can we limit warming to 1.5℃?
There is no clear yes or no answer to this question.
Put simply, it is not impossible that global warming could be limited to 1.5℃. But achieving this will be profoundly challenging.
If we are to limit warming to 1.5℃, we must reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030, reaching near-zero by around 2050.
Whether we are successful primarily depends on the rate at which government and non-state bodies take action to reduce emissions. Yet despite the urgency, current national pledges under the Paris Agreement are not enough to remain within a 3℃ temperature limit, let alone 1.5℃.
Global warming is not just a problem for the future. The impacts are already being felt around the world, with declines in crop yields, biodiversity, coral reefs, and Arctic sea ice, and increases in heatwaves and heavy rainfall. Sea levels have risen by 40.5mm in the past decade and are predicted to continue rising for decades, even if all greenhouse emissions were reduced to zero immediately. Climate adaptation is already needed and will be increasingly so at 1.5℃ and 2℃ of warming.
Rapid action is essential and the next ten years will be crucial. In 2017, global warming breached 1℃. If the planet continues to warm at the current rate of 0.2℃ per decade, we will reach 1.5℃ of warming around 2040. At current emissions rates, within the next 10 to 14 years there is a 2/3 chance we will have used up our entire carbon budget for keeping to 1.5.
How can we limit warming to 1.5℃?
The report says “transformational” change will be needed to limit warming to 1.5℃. Business as usual will not get us there.
Global emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases need to reach net zero globally by around 2050. Most economists say putting a price on emissions is the most efficient way to do this.
By 2050, 70-85% of electricity globally will need to be supplied by renewables. Investment in low-carbon and energy-efficient technologies will need to double, whereas investment in fossil-fuel extraction will need to decrease by around a quarter.
Carbon dioxide removal technology will also be needed to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. But the IPCC’s report warns that relying too heavily on this technology would be a major risk as it has not been used on such a large scale before. Carbon dioxide removal is an extra step that may be needed to keep warming to 1.5℃, not an excuse to keep emitting greenhouse gases.
Production, consumption and lifestyle choices also play a role. Reducing energy demand and food waste, improving the efficiency of food production, and choosing foods and goods with lower emissions and land use requirements will contribute significantly.
Taking such action as soon as possible will be hugely beneficial. The earlier we start, the more time we have to reach net zero emissions. Acting early will mean a smoother transition and less net cost overall. Delay will lead to more haste, higher costs, and a harder landing.
Reducing emissions quickly will also ensure warming is capped as soon as possible, reducing the number and severity of impacts.
Yet severe impacts will still be experienced even if warming is successfully capped at 1.5℃.
What is the cost of 1.5℃ of warming?
Although the Paris Agreement aims to hold global warming as close to 1.5℃ as possible, that doesn’t mean it is a “safe” level. Communities and ecosystems around the world have already suffered significant impacts from the 1℃ of warming so far, and the effects at 1.5℃ will be harsher still.
Poverty and disadvantages will increase as temperatures rise to 1.5℃. Small island states, deltas and low-lying coasts are particularly vulnerable, with increased risk of flooding, and threats to freshwater supplies, infrastructure, and livelihoods.
Warming to 1.5℃ also poses a risk to global economic growth, with the tropics and southern subtropics potentially being hit hardest. Extreme weather events such as floods, heatwaves, and droughts will become more frequent, severe, and widespread, with attendant costs in terms of health care, infrastructure, and disaster response.
The oceans will also suffer in a 1.5℃ warmer world. Ocean warming and acidification are expected to impact fisheries and aquaculture, as well as many marine species and ecosystems.
Up to 90% of warm water coral reefs are predicted to disappear when global warming reaches 1.5℃. That would be a dire situation, but far less serious than at 2℃, when the destruction of coral reefs would be almost total (greater than 99% destruction).
How do 1.5℃ and 2℃ compare?
Impacts on both human and natural systems would be very different at 1.5℃ rather than 2℃ of warming. For example, limiting warming to 1.5℃ would roughly halve the number of people globally who are expected to suffer from water scarcity.
Seas would rise by an extra 10cm this century at 2℃ compared with 1.5℃. This means limiting global warming to 1.5℃ would save up to 10.4 million people from the impacts of rising seas.
At 1.5℃ rather than 2℃:
up to 427 million fewer people will suffer food and water insecurity, climate risks, and adverse health impacts
extreme weather events, heat-related death and disease, desertification, and wildlife extinctions will all be reduced
it will be significantly easier to achieve many of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including those linked to hunger, poverty, water and sanitation, health, and cities and ecosystems.
How does the 1.5℃ target fit with the Sustainable Development Goals?
The Sustainable Development Goals aim for a world in which people can be healthy, financially stable, well fed, have clean air and water, and live in a secure and pleasant environment. Much of this is consistent with the goal of capping global warming at 1.5℃, which is why the IPCC notes there are synergies if the SDG initiatives and climate action should be explicitly linked.
But some climate strategies may make it harder to achieve particular SDGs. Countries that are highly dependent on fossil fuels for employment and revenue may suffer economically in the transition towards low-carbon energy.
Carefully managing this transition by simultaneously focusing on reducing poverty and promoting equity in decision-making may help avoid the worst effects of such trade-offs. What works in one place may not work in another, so strategies should always be locally appropriate.
Limiting global warming to 1.5℃ will require a social transformation, as the world takes rapid action to reduce greenhouse gases. The effects of climate change will continue to shape the world we live in, but there is no doubt we will be far better off under 1.5℃ than 2℃ of global warming.
The choices we make today are shaping the future for coming generations. As the new report makes clear, if we are serious about the 1.5℃ target, we need to act now.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the substantial contribution to authorship of this article by of Lamis Kazak, an Australian National University Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (Sustainability) student, as part of a Science Communication Internship with the Climate Change Institute.
If you have ever been to a nature reserve in Africa, you may have been lucky enough to see predators on a kill – maybe something spectacular like lions on a giraffe. The chances are you got to see that because the predators killed the prey right on the road, where you could get up close in your car or safari vehicle.
But what if this was not just luck? What if lions had greater hunting success along a road because their prey slip on the tarmac, stumble and fall, thus becoming a meal? The road – a human intrusion in a natural world – could be increasing the predators’ hunting success.
This intriguing idea led us to wonder if there were other examples in which human structures or environments might benefit predators – a group of animals that would otherwise appear to want as little to do with humans and their world as possible.
Ecosystems are dynamic, which means that new ones can arise when species occur in combinations and numbers that have not happened before. While we often (rightly) have a very negative view of our impact on the natural world, sometimes organisms can surprise us by taking advantage of what we do and creating a successful space for themselves in a human world.
Once we started looking, we found other examples of predators exploiting these niches. We found four ways, with much overlap, that predators take advantage of human habitats to improve their hunting success.
First, certain animal species follow human settlements and can provide a completely new food source for predators. Rodents (rats and mice) and invasive birds (such as sparrows or starlings) exploit resources around towns. Pets and livestock are also commonly taken by predators such as bears, wolves, foxes and dingoes.
Second, potential prey species often gather around artificial resources, reducing commute times for predators and increasing their hunting success. For example, European kestrels ambush populations of bats and swifts as they leave their roosts in building ventilation. Two species of sea lion have learned to travel 100km up the Columbia River in the United States to hunt masses of migrating salmon that gather at fish ladders (structures that help fish go over or around dams or other barriers when migrating upriver to spawn) over the Bonneville Dam. Brown bears, meanwhile, hunt at fish weirs, trapping congregations of fish against these to prevent their escape.
Third, structures we build or things we do can make prey species more vulnerable. African wild dogs take down larger prey when they chase them into fences, and dingoes exploit roadkill along major highways. Horse-eye jack fish ambush prey around dock pilings that interrupt the synchronised escape behaviour of the fish schools. Peregrine falcons in New York city hunt at night as they have more success catching pigeons that are bedazzled by skyscraper lights. Lions have learned to use cowbells to locate livestock. Here in Australia wedge-tailed eagles follow harvesters on farms to catch animals flushed out by the machinery.
Finally, some predators also use resources that we provide as tools to aid their hunting. Some birds use human refuse to lure fish to their doom and many raptors use lampposts and aerials as perches, increasing their hunting success. Larger species such as cheetah and leopards similarly exploit our presence to hunt more successfully.
Only a few studies have tried to quantify the benefits of human environments for predators, identifying how they experience increased hunting success, reduced energy expenditure, or increased reproductive output. Such benefits can ultimately lead to increased population sizes, as has happened with the New York kestrel population and Chicago’s coyotes.
We predict that some predators are likely to become more abundant in our lives, which could have both positive and negative implications. For example, they are important biocontrol agents and do a great job of suppressing rodent populations. However, interactions with large predators can be dangerous for humans.
Predators can be vital for maintaining a balanced ecosystem. However, predator species can have a huge effect on their environment, even when there are only a few of them about. Predator species can easily become invasive animals, as we have seen with the introduction of cats into Australia or brown tree snakes onto the island of Guam.
These predators have had devastating consequences for whole ecosystems, and our actions may be unwittingly increasing their advantages over prey species, as has been made evident by ravens using human-built perches to predate heavily on desert tortoises. Similarly, animals using road underpasses are more vulnerable to introduced red foxes as the foxes – clever animals – soon learn to wait at the underpass exit for a meal delivery.
Our presence and the way we alter our environment can therefore thwart conservation of threatened species, despite our best attempts. We need to carefully consider how we influence our environment, and be on the lookout for instances where predators are making use of novel niches to exploit prey species. Even the smallest changes we make can affect a whole landscape, and can make prey animals more vulnerable.
What can creative literature tell us about radical environmental change? Most people accept that literature can be closely connected to places. Whether it is Dickens’s London or Hardy’s Wessex, we also accept that imaginative works deliver something about the nature of place that does not necessarily come to us by any other means.
It is a regional literary history that nevertheless encompasses some of the nation’s finest writers — Albert Facey, Dorothy Hewett, Peter Cowan, Jack Davis, Randolph Stow, Elizabeth Jolley, Tom Flood, John Kinsella. Facey’s A Fortunate Life (1981) is a landmark in Australian autobiography; Hewett, Cowan and Stow helped define literary modernism in Australia; Jack Davis was a leading figure in the Aboriginal literary renaissance; and Jolley’s The Well (1986) and Flood’s Oceana Fine (1990) both won the Miles Franklin literary award.
What unites these works? Is it simply a quirk of fate that a sparsely populated hinterland in Australia’s most isolated state produces a body of literature that rivals in many ways the literary outputs of the great Australian metropolitan centres in Melbourne and Sydney?
For the answer to this question one has to understand the history of the WA wheatbelt. In two 30-year periods (1900-1930 and 1945-1975) an area of land roughly the size of Britain was stripped of its native vegetation for the production of grain and livestock. It is a crescent of land that begins just north of Geraldton on the west coast and sweeps south and east to Esperance on the south coast.
When the Swan River Colony was founded in 1829, six years before Melbourne, it was with the intention of forming an agricultural colony of closely settled yeoman farmers, who would own their own land and congregate in small, nicely spaced villages.
However, the antique soil of WA bore almost no resemblance to the fertile soils of recently glaciated northern Europe. Four to five more or less rainless months, where dry desert winds blow steadily across the vegetation was also an unprecedented challenge to farming methods learned in the British Isles. Lastly, there were almost no rivers to speak of, and permanent summer water was a rare commodity.
For all these reasons, the agricultural dream of WA remained largely unrealized. The game-changing event was the goldrush of the 1890s. The population of the colony trebled between 1889 and 1896, from 44,000 to 138,000.
Knowing that the gold would be dug out before too long but wanting to capture this new cache of colonists, the colonial government passed the Homesteads Act in 1893 to parcel out land, and established an Agricultural Bank in 1894 to finance farmer-settlers. An army of land surveyors fanned out through the southwest and provisions for water, fertilizer and rail transit were quickly put into motion. Towns were gazetted, one-teacher schools popped up and WA took the lead in distance learning.
Albert Facey’s uncle Archie McCall had come over from South Australia to work the goldfields and was one of those who leapt at the land offer. Dorothy Hewett’s grandparents had made their money selling goods to diggers heading out to the goldfields at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie and with this they purchased an extensive parcel of prime land at Yealering not far from McCall’s farm at Wickepin.
The dream refracted
What we get in both of these very different writers is a distinct picture of the dream of the wheatbelt. It is this dream — a settler-colonial ideology of farming independence — that we see refracted through the wheatbelt writers all the way through the 20th century.
The animating vision of the wheatbelt was an amalgam of ideals. On the one hand, it appealed to the basic material prospect of upward mobility. In the late 19th and early 20th century, opportunities for advancement through education were not generally available.
But the wheatbelt vision seemed even more deeply situated than this, offering itself as an antidote to the ills of modern city life. As the various states all moved to convert low-yield pastoral production to high-yield cash-cropping, there emerged a veritable ideology of wheat in the post-Federation years, and right through to the Depression.
C.J. Dennis joined the chorus in his bouncy ballad simply called Wheat from 1918:
Tho’ it ain’t a life o’ pleasure,
An’ there’s little time for leisure,
It’s contentin’, in a measure, is the game of growin’
Dennis and others helped to drag crop-farming away from its associations with European peasant drudgery and into the noble task of nation-building and feeding the “bread-eating” (i.e. European or European-derived) countries of the world.
For Facey, even though his memoir was not published until 1981 (the year before he died), the dream of the wheatbelt and the ideology of wheat remain preserved as if in amber. The basic tasks of “clearing” the wheatbelt — particularly the regimes of annual burning and cutting — are remembered with particular pride by Facey.
Born a generation and a half later, Hewett grew up in a farm that was already in place. Although she left Lambton Downs (as it was dubbed) at the age of 11, Hewett’s writing returned again and again to the wheatbelt. Hewett’s wheatbelt had a mythic, gothic flavour in which the dream of it is present but often in inverted form. This wheatbelt is beset by a pernicious fatality and mired in the sexual miseries of her extended family.
Hewett deserves credit for being the first writer to take seriously the fact that the wheatbelt was built on land whose traditional owners had not disappeared but were still there, either impoverished in fringe-camps or incarcerated in government or church institutions.
The other side of the farming frontier
But it was the emergence of Aboriginal writing in the generation politicized by the citizenship referendum that brought a powerful voice from the other side of the wheatbelt frontier. Jack Davis had spent time in the notorious Moore River Native Settlement on the edge of the mid-northern wheatbelt, and then (after the untimely death of his father), with relatives of his mother’s sister at the Brookton reserve in the Avon valley. There he did the usual itinerant work that Aboriginal families did in the wheatbelt’s early years — clearing, fencing, shearing, rabbiting.
What Davis gives us in his poetry of the 1970s and the great plays of the 80s is a completely alternative vision of the wheatbelt. It doesn’t look like wheatbelt literature for the simple reason that it does not proceed either positively or negatively from the wheatbelt dream. Instead, it proceeds from Aboriginal presence in the land.
The tragedy of the Noongar is shown in all its woeful extremity, but tempered by Davis’s astringent sense of humour—his black humour if you like. But really Jack Davis is writing about survival. His example has provided a platform for a writer like Kim Scott to foster new forms of Noongar creative re-emergence, and also new forms of penetrating critique.
At the same time that a consciousness of Aboriginal dispossession began to force its way into the understanding of the wheatbelt, a much sharper sense of its ecological cost was also starting to emerge. Certainly, right through my literary history of the wheatbelt there was a realization that the waving fields of wheat were planted on lands stripped of their native ecosystems.
Everyone knew this because everyone spent a considerable part of each year toiling to clear the land. But the view tended to be that there was always more bush. Each bit of clearing was a merely local matter. Likewise, as rising salinity became directly associated with the clearing of native perennial vegetation, it was repeatedly explained away as a small, local, confined phenomenon.
But in the writing of Peter Cowan and that of the naturalist, Barbara York Main, the full picture of environmental destruction began to appear without the customary euphemism. It would be wrong to say that public opinion, particularly in the wheatbelt, changed decisively in the 1960s or even the 1970s. The cart-blanche denial, however, of environmental value — that the natural world of the wheatbelt had a value — became harder and harder to maintain.
By the 1980s, the wheatbelt had become uncanny. No longer the sign of the natural cycles of life replenishing the earth with seasonal regularity, but a vast and even repellent monocultural expanse. The wheatbelt was something profoundly unnatural in the eyes of writers like Elizabeth Jolley, Tom Flood and John Kinsella.
Of these, it has been Kinsella who has proved to be both durable and prolific. His poems, stories and other writings specify a wheatbelt that exists in strange cross-currents of science, tradition and avarice. The natural world is prised out of its familiar romantic categories and, in his remarkable work, exists in eerie counterpoise to the techno-scientific mania of modern agribusiness.
The central fact of the wheatbelt is radical disappearance. On one hand there was the destruction of the sovereign culture of the Noongar, custodians for millennia. Noongar people continue to practice and uphold their culture in spite of everything and the land continues to speak through them.
But on the other hand we must also contend with the fact that in the central wheatbelt shires, at least, only something like 7% of the natural vegetation (and the animal habitat it provides) remains. This, in a place that has a biodiversity as stunning as a rainforest canopy.
Literature cannot, in and of itself, make these losses good. A thousand novels cannot replace one extinct species. But in human terms there is hope. The Noongar language is being revitalized. And here literature certainly does have a role to play. Jack Davis used Noongar in his plays and provided his own glossaries. Kim Scott’s fiction, and occasional poetry, gives its readers Noongar — in fact teaches its readers Noongar and the deft sonics of a language adapted to country. And many of today’s farmers are now at the forefront of conservation initiative and Landcare groups.
The role, though, that I see for literature in coming to terms with the facts of the wheatbelt lies in its capacity to continuously disabuse us of the complacent certitudes by which we think we know the world. It need not require the experimental bravura of Kinsella’s postmodern verse to do this unsettling. Even the older writing does it in surprising ways.
What Dorothy Hewett and Jack Davis do within the broad parameters of theatrical realism nevertheless succeeds in unpicking the simple pouches we tend to pack our conceptions in. Barbara York Main’s natural histories throw open the dazzling singularity of wheatbelt life forms, and at the same time their intricate interconnections. Peter Cowan’s quietist studies of disillusioned loneliness, defamiliarises the wheatbelt just as certainly as Facey’s childhood glee at burning the bush to smouldering ashes.
It is not a particular kind of literature that gets to the “heart” of the wheatbelt. It is the fact that the wheatbelt falls into the prism of literature that allows us to see this place in terms other than the ones it gave itself via its animating dream of agricultural plenitude and generational continuity.
Creative writing is not blind to the natural or economic forces that determine the fate of the wheatbelt, but it will always approach the matter through the medium of human subjectivity. In this sense, it is only literature that allows us to see inside the wheatbelt that was created, geologically speaking, in the blink of an eye.