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.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is seeking changes to Australia’s national environment act to stop conservation groups from challenging ministerial decisions on major resource developments and other matters of environmental importance.
Turnbull is reviving a bid made by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott to abolish Section 487 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) – a bid rejected in the Senate in 2015. If it goes ahead, the change will significantly diminish the functionality of the act.
The EPBC Act, introduced by the Howard government in 1999, has an established record of success. Judicial oversight of ministerial discretion, enabled by expanded standing under Section 487, has been crucial to its success.
Section 487 allows individuals and groups to challenge ministerial decisions on resources, developments and other issues under the EPBC Act. An organisation can establish standing by showing they have engaged in activities for the “protection or conservation of, or research into, the environment” within the previous two years. They must also show that their purpose is environmental protection.
Repealing this provision would remove the standing of these groups to seek judicial review of decisions. Standing would then revert to the common law position. That means parties would need to prove they are a “person aggrieved” by showing that their interests have been impacted directly.
Many environmental groups will be unable to satisfy the common law test, leaving a very small group of people with the right to request judicial review – essentially, the right to check that federal ministerial power under the EPBC Act has been exercised properly.
This is likely to have a devastating impact on fragile ecological systems and biodiversity conservation strategies.
This is particularly concerning given the dramatic changes affecting the environment from the expansion of onshore resource development and the acceleration of climate change.
Why do we have the EPBC Act?
The EPBC Act was designed to promote the introduction of ecologically sustainable resource development. This means federal environment ministers must take into account the economic, environmental and social impacts of proposals.
The EPBC Act is triggered and developments require Federal approval when they affect:
World heritage sites
National heritage sites
Threatened species and ecological communities
Nuclear actions, and
Commonwealth marine areas.
Since its implementation, Section 487 has proved critical to the success of significant achievements in environmental protection and management. Here are just a few examples.
The Nathan Dam case
The Nathan Dam case handed down in 2004 tested the protective scope of the EPBC Act.
Using Section 487, the Queensland Conservation Council and WWF Australia challenged the Federal Environment Minister’s decision to approve the construction of a large dam in central Queensland.
The dam was built to supply water for crop irrigation and other developments in the catchment of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The issue was whether the minister, in granting approval, was required to take into account the impact of pollution from farmers using water supplied by the dam.
The Full Federal Court held that adverse impacts such as downstream pollution by irrigators did need to be taken into account by the minister. The importance of this decision lay in the finding that the scope of the EPBC Act was very broad, requiring the minister to consider indirect environmental impacts, including the acts of third parties where those acts could be reasonably anticipated.
The decision also resulted in an amendment to the definition of “impact” set out in the act.
The Federal Court held that the loss of habitat was cumulative and had a dramatic impact on the three protected species. The court concluded that the objectives of the EPBC Act were to protect threatened species as well as restore populations so they were no longer threatened.
Forestry Tasmania had not complied with the Regional Forestry Agreements Act, because there was insufficient protection provided for threatened species. This meant that Forestry Tasmania could not claim an exemption from the application of the EPBC Act.
The decision is important because it highlights the ability of the Act, where judicial review is sought under Section 487 by an interested party, to determine the suitability of state practices for the protection and restoration of endangered species.
The Japanese whaling case
The case brought by Humane Society International Inc (HSI) against Kyodo Senpaku Keisha Ltd (Kyodo) tested the scope of the EPBC Act to protect endangered species in international waters.
HSI sought to stop the Japanese company from scientific whaling in the Australian Whale Sanctuary. In response, Japan claimed it did not recognise Australia’s sovereignty over the Antarctic waters that lay within the sanctuary.
The Federal Court declared that Kyodo was in breach of the EPBC Act and granted HSI an injunction restraining Kyodo from committing further breaches. HSI’s standing under Section 487 was critical – without it, the case would not have been brought.
The Carmichael coal mine cases
In 2014 and 2015 two cases were brought challenging the decision of the Federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, to approve the Carmichael coal mine. The coal mine, one of the world’s largest, was to be developed by a subsidiary of the Indian company, Adani.
In early 2015 the Mackay Conservation Group brought an action in the Federal Court arguing that the Minister had failed to consider two listed threatened species, the yakka skink and the ornamental snake.
No judgement was issued, but the court issued a statement that the Minister had failed to take these species into account when making the approval.
In 2016, the Australian Conservation Foundation brought a further case arguing that Hunt had failed to take account of the climate impact from the mine. It’s estimated the burning of coal from these mines will generate approximately 4.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
In ACF v The Minister for the Environment, the Federal court concluded that the decision of the Environment Minister was legal, did not breach the EPBC Act and did not contravene the precautionary principle because there was no threat of serious or irreversible environmental damage to the Great Barrier Reef National Park.
ACF then sought an appeal from this decision to the Full Federal Court on the 16th of September, 2016. When handed down, the decision will be crucially important for the future of climate governance in Australia.
None of these decisions would have been possible without the groups’ standing under Section 487 of the EPBC Act. Removing these provisions undermines the foundational objectives of Australia’s national environmental act at a time when its protective capabilities are needed most.
Australia recently gained an unenviable title: perhaps the first country to lose a mammal species to climate change. The Bramble Cay Melomys, a native rodent found on one tiny sand island in the remote northern regions of the Great Barrier Reef, reportedly became extinct after rising seas destroyed its habitat.
The melomys’ likely extinction is a symptom of the massive changes taking place across the natural world. Faced with these changes, we cannot possibly save every species without increasing funding for conservation.
We should be trying to conserve everything we can, or at least minimising the number of plants, animals and ecosystems that are lost. The problem is that Australia’s conservation laws presume that we can preserve everything in its natural state. But in a changing world, we’ll have to be more flexible than that.
The new nature
Our conservation laws were drafted on the assumption that, if human intervention could be avoided or managed, plants and animals would survive in their natural, pristine environments.
We now know that that is not the case. Nature is dynamic. Humans have had a pervasive influence on the environment and recent research suggests that pristine environments no longer exist.
Climate change will rapidly accelerate environmental change. Shifting temperature and rainfall will shift the specific conditions that species depend on to survive. Everything will be on the move.
On top of these gradual climate shifts, more frequent and intense bushfires, storms and heatwaves will destroy some habitats and increase the threatened status of many species. In some cases, these extreme events may result in localised extinctions.
Climate change is creating new problems for biodiversity (such as new invasive species) and is making existing problems worse (such as by changing fire patterns).
What does conservation mean if we can’t save everything?
Far from making conservation law irrelevant, these challenges mean that conservation policy and laws are more important than ever.
Expanding land and marine reserves, restoring and connecting habitat with other areas, and reducing other threats such land clearing or feral animals are all important climate adaptation strategies.
But many Australian plants and animals will not be able to move fast enough to escape extreme events or to keep pace with their specific climate niches on their own. To conserve these species, we may need to engage in high‑intervention conservation strategies, such as assisted colonisation.
This involves moving an individual, population or species to a place where it has never been found before. This tactic is being investigated for the endangered Western Swamp Tortoise in Western Australia, as its wetland habitat begins to dry out.
Conservation laws in Australia were not designed to accommodate these kinds of dynamic and proactive approaches to conservation management.
First, current laws emphasise maintaining the current status and location of ecosystems and their constituent parts, or returning them to an “undisturbed” state.
Second, they place high value on biodiversity that is rare, native and wild.
Finally, they emphasise reserves (especially on public land) as the sites for most conservation effort.
For example, national park laws typically require agencies to conserve national parks in their natural state. This is usually defined by the plants and animals that are already there or that have been found there in the past.
But some species might need to be moved into national parks, even if they have never been found there before, or out of national parks to somewhere more climatically suitable. Current laws do not let us do this.
Rather than an outdated idea of what is “natural”, we need new objectives that focus on diversity and ecosystem function and health. If introducing a plant or animal into a national park will increase its chance of surviving under climate change and will not undermine the health of the park’s ecosystems, the introduction should not be excluded just because the species is not “native” to that specific park. This approach would help species adapt through movement across boundaries.
Letting species go
Another example of a potential legal roadblock is the emphasis on individual threatened species in both legal protection and funding. For instance, the Coalition government has pledged AU$5 million for specific actions to protect some of the most endangered of Australia’s listed threatened species.
But this is an example of assuming that we can save everything. The contracting ranges and already precarious status of many listed species make it unlikely that we will be able to conserve them all, and impossible to do so in their historic locations.
Choices based on what species we fund are rarely transparent and the public is rarely consulted about what we value the most. We need to have a conversation about how we value species and ecosystems in a changing world. If more people realised that we cannot save everything, perhaps more people would demand that appropriate funding is allocated to saving as much as possible.
While funding remains limited, we need objectives that reflect the certainty of some loss of species in the wild and that clearly define the criteria we are using for targeting some species for protection while letting others go.
Our conservation laws direct how we will act to save species and ecosystems under climate change, and whether we will succeed. But climate change makes our current objectives unachievable.
We must not give up on conserving as much as we can as the climate changes. Laws can be used to help us achieve this goal. But we urgently need a national conversation about what reform is needed to ensure the best possible conservation results for Australia’s precious wildlife, plants and ecosystems.