Many of us are aware of the enormous threat of antibiotic- (or “antimicrobial”) resistant bacteria on human health. But few realise just how pervasive these superbugs are — antimicrobial-resistant bacteria have jumped from humans and are running rampant across wildlife and the environment.
My research is revealing the enormous breadth of wildlife species with superbugs in their gut bacterial communities (“microbiome”). Affected wildlife includes little penguins, sea lions, brushtailed possums, Tassie devils, flying foxes, echidnas, and a range of kangaroo and wallaby species.
Humans have solely driven the emergence and spread of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, mainly through the overuse, and often misuse, of antibiotics.
The spread of superbugs to the environment has mainly occurred through human wastewater. Medical and industrial waste, which pollute the environment with the antibiotics themselves, worsen the issue. And the ability for antibiotic-resistant genes to be shared between bacteria in the environment has propelled antimicrobial resistance even further.
Generally, wildlife closer to people in urban areas are more likely to carry antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, because we share our homes, food waste and water with them.
For example, our recent research showed 48% of 664 brushtail possums around Sydney and Melbourne tested positive for antibiotic-resistant genes.
Whether animals are in captivity or the wild also plays a role in their levels of antimicrobial resistance.
For example, we found only 5.3% of grey-headed flying-foxes in the wild were carrying resistance traits. This jumps to 41% when flying-foxes are in wildlife care or captivity.
Likewise, less than 2% of wild Australian sea lions we tested had antibiotic-resistant bacteria, compared to more than 40% of those in captivity. We’ve found similar trends between captive and wild little penguins, too.
And more than 40% of brush-tailed rock wallabies in a captive breeding program were carrying antibiotic resistance genes compared to none from the wild.
So why is this a problem?
An animal with antibiotic-resistant bacteria may be harder to treat with antibiotics if it’s injured or sick and ends up in care. But generally, we’re yet to understand their full impact – though we can speculate.
For wildlife, resistant bacteria are essentially “weeds” in their microbiomes. These microbial weeds may disrupt the microbiomes, impairing immunity or increasing the risk of infection by other agents.
Another problem relates to how antimicrobial-resistant bacteria can spread their resistant genes to other bacteria. Sharing genes between bacteria is a major driver for new resistant bacterial strains.
We’ve been finding more types of resistant genes in an animal’s microbiome than we do in comparison to commonly studied bacteria, such as Escherichia coli. This means some wildlife bacteria may have acquired resistance genes, but we don’t know which.
Many of the wildlife species we’ve examined also carry human-associated bacterial strains — strains known to cause, for instance, diarrhoeal disease in humans. In wildlife, these bacteria could potentially acquire novel resistance genes making them harder to treat if they spread back to people.
This is something we found in grey-headed flying-fox microbiomes, which had new combinations of resistant genes. These, we concluded, originated from the outside environment.
How do we mitigate this threat?
Antimicrobial stewardship — using the best antibiotic when a bacterial infection is diagnosed, and using it appropriately — is a big part of tackling this global health issue.
The 2020 strategy builds on a previous strategy by better incorporating the environment, in what should be a true “One Health” approach. The World Health Organisation’s appointment of Ley supports this.
Antimicrobial stewardship is equally important for those in veterinary fields as well as medical doctors. As Australia leads the world in wildlife rehabilitation, antimicrobial stewardship should be a major part of wildlife care.
For the rest of us, preventing our superbugs from spilling over to wildlife also starts with taking antibiotics appropriately, and recognising antibiotics work only for bacterial infections. It’s also worth noting you should find a toilet if you’re out in the bush (and not “go naturally”), and not leave your food scraps behind for wild animals to find.
The 2020 strategy recognises the need for better communication to strengthen stewardship and awareness. This should include education on the issues of antimicrobial resistance, what it means for wildlife health, and how to mitigate it.
This is something my colleagues and I are tackling through our citizen science project, Scoop a Poop, where we work with school children, community groups and wildlife carers who collect possum poo around the country to help us better understand antimicrobial resistance in the wild.
The power of working with citizens to better the health of our environment cannot be overstated.
In our recent paper, we identify a major flaw in the current approach to listing threatened ecological communities for protection under the EPBC Act: the requirement to meet unrealistic condition thresholds.
In other words, where areas of a community do not meet these specific minimum thresholds, they’re considered too degraded to warrant conservation and aren’t protected under the EPBC Act.
What’s an ecological community anyway?
An ecological community is a group of species that co-exist in a specific type of habitat and interact with each other. For example, a mangrove community is clearly different in structure and the types of plants and animals is supports, compared to what you would see in a salt marsh community nearby.
Just like individual species, ecological communities can occur over thousands of kilometres, even though examples of this type of community may only be found in small and patchy areas across that range.
For example, less than 5% of the box gum grassy woodlands remain in good condition. This critically endangered community is home to a number of threatened plant and animal species, such as the spotted-tailed quoll, but many areas have been degraded and cleared for farming, threatening their survival.
The flaw in the law
Most listings of threatened ecological communities contain very specific “condition thresholds”. These thresholds were introduced to the legislation in 2005 in an effort to prioritise habitats considered higher quality.
Condition thresholds are usually defined in consultation with experts and often involve very specific descriptive characteristics, such as minimum patch sizes or numbers of species.
If areas of a community do not meet these specific minimum thresholds, it means a landholder doesn’t require approval to clear or develop parts of a community, if those parts are perceived to be “poor quality” habitat.
For example, the condition thresholds for Coolibah-black box woodlands suggest protection only applies to woodland patches larger than five hectares. This ignores the ecological importance of smaller patches that increase the connectivity of habitat in the landscape.
What’s more, condition thresholds make it hard to justify conservation funding to restore areas that don’t meet those criteria.
Unrealistic thresholds threaten wildlife
This is bad for biodiversity conservation in Australia for two reasons.
First, excluding examples of a threatened ecological community from protection because they don’t meet restrictive condition thresholds assumes these areas have no ecological value.
This is clearly a flawed assumption, as small, disturbed or degraded remnants can still be important to conservation. They could, for instance, be a target for restoration, a source of regeneration for nearby areas of the community as part of a larger natural corridor, or a habitat for threatened species.
Let’s take the critically endangered ecological community of the Cumberland plain woodland in the Sydney Basin as an example. Only 9% of the woodlands’ original extent remains today.
Despite providing habitat for threatened squirrel gliders, bats, and land snails, urban development in areas containing the woodland were continually approved during the 2000s — a death by a thousand cuts for the species and communities in patchy conditions.
This is a problem, because most remaining examples of these wetlands are on private property and almost all have been modified by humans in some way, including damming. Few of these modified wetlands would technically qualify for protection.
Yet some of these modified wetlands still support diverse plants and animals and are important sites for migratory waterbirds, such as Latham’s snipe.
Because this threatened community has such a small distribution and very few examples remain (only 58 lagoons are left in the Northern Tablelands), excluding even a few because of unrealistic condition thresholds greatly increases their risk of extinction.
New attitudes in a changing world
It’s clear governance frameworks have struggled to keep up with the changes in ecosystems that human activity causes.
These frameworks are often based on a flawed assumption: that natural systems remain essentially the same over time. To prevent further biodiversity loss, we need better understanding of how, when and why ecological communities shift between different states.
Importantly, we need to change our approach to environmental governance frameworks, including seriously rethinking condition thresholds in the EPBC Act, to ensure we can continue to protect biodiversity as it rapidly changes before us.
Human damage to biodiversity is leading us into a pandemic era. The virus that causes COVID-19, for example, is linked to similar viruses in bats, which may have been passed to humans via pangolins or another species.
Environmental destruction such as land clearing, deforestation, climate change, intense agriculture and the wildlife trade is putting humans into closer contact with wildlife. Animals carry microbes that can be transferred to people during these encounters.
A major report released today says up to 850,000 undiscovered viruses which could be transferred to humans are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts.
The report, by The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), says to avoid future pandemics, humans must urgently transform our relationship with the environment.
Humans costs are mounting
The report is the result of a week-long virtual workshop in July this year, attended by leading experts. It says a review of scientific evidence shows:
…pandemics are becoming more frequent, driven by a continued rise in the underlying emerging disease events that spark them. Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before.
The report says, on average, five new diseases are transferred from animals to humans every year – all with pandemic potential. In the past century, these have included:
the Hendra virus (which first erupted at a Brisbane racing stable in 1994).
The report says an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, 540,000-850,000 could infect humans.
But rather than prioritising the prevention of pandemic outbreaks, governments around the world primarily focus on responding – through early detection, containment and hope for rapid development of vaccines and medicines.
As the report states, COVID-19 demonstrates:
…this is a slow and uncertain path, and as the global population waits for vaccines to become available, the human costs are mounting, in lives lost, sickness endured, economic collapse, and lost livelihoods.
This approach can also damage biodiversity – for example, leading to large culls of identified carrier-species. Tens of thousands of wild animals were culled in China after the SARS outbreak and bats continue to be persecuted after the onset of COVID-19.
The report says women and Indigenous communities are particularly disadvantaged by pandemics. Women represent more then 70% of social and health-care workers globally, and past pandemics have disproportionately harmed indigenous people, often due to geographical isolation.
It says pandemics and other emerging zoonoses (diseases that have jumped from animals to humans) likely cause more than US$1 trillion in economic damages annually. As of July 2020, the cost of COVID-19 was estimated at US $8-16 trillion globally. The costs of preventing the next pandemic are likely to be 100 times less than that.
A way forward
The IPBES report identifies potential ways forward. These include:
• increased intergovernmental cooperation, such as a council on pandemic prevention, that could lead to a binding international agreement on targets for pandemic prevention measures
• global implementation of OneHealth policies – policies on human health, animal health and the environment which are integrated, rather than “siloed” and considered in isolation
• a reduction in land-use change, by expanding protected areas, restoring habitat and implementing financial disincentives such as taxes on meat consumption
• policies to reduce wildlife trade and the risks associated with it, such as increasing sanitation and safety in wild animal markets, increased biosecurity measures and enhanced enforcement around illegal trade.
Societal and individual behaviour change will also be needed. Exponential growth in consumption, often driven by developed countries, has led to the repeated emergence of diseases from less-developed countries where the commodities are produced.
So how do we bring about social change that can reduce consumption? Measures proposed in the report include:
labelling high pandemic-risk consumption patterns, such as captive wildlife for sale as pets as either “wild-caught” or “captive-bred” with information on the country where it was bred or captured
providing incentives for sustainable behaviour
increasing food security to reduce the need for wildlife consumption.
An Australian response
Australia was one of the founding member countries of IPBES in 2012 and so has made an informal, non-binding commitment to follow its science and policy evidence.
However, there are no guarantees it will accept the recommendations of the IPBES report, given the Australian government’s underwhelming recent record on environmental policy.
For example, in recent months the government has so far refused to sign the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. The pledge, instigated by the UN, includes a commitment to taking a OneHealth approach – which considers health and environmental sustainability together – when devising policies and making decisions.
Finally, Australia is one of few countries without a national centre for disease control and pandemics.
But there are good reasons for hope. It’s within Australia’s means to build an organisation focused on a OneHealth approach. Australia is one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet and Australians are willing to protect it. Further, many investors believe proper environmental policy will aid Australia’s economic recovery.
Finally, we have countless passionate experts and traditional owners willing to do the hard work around policy design and implementation.
As this new report demonstrates, we know the origins of pandemics, and this gives us the power to prevent them.
After the 2008 global financial crisis, Green New Deals were proposed in various countries as a way to pick up the pieces of the economy. The general idea is to create jobs while rebuilding societies, by targeting environmental innovation as the key to economic recovery.
We’re in the midst of another global financial crisis that’s infinitely more crippling than in 2008, and the global pandemic that brought it on shows no signs of easing. So is now really the right time to, yet again, advocate for a Green New Deal?
In his speech to the National Press Club last week, national Greens leader Adam Bandt reiterated his push for the deal. He lambasted the Morrison government’s economic response to COVID-19 in the federal budget, which largely shunned renewable energy investment, calling it “criminal”.
The Greens’ proposal echoes Labor, business, unions and environmental groups, and even some conservatives, who think green policies are vital to strengthen the economy post-pandemic.
And they’re right, the Green New Deal is explicitly designed to assist recovery after a crisis. With many countries already taking on similar ideas, the Coalition government’s steadfast investment in fossil fuels will only hold Australia back.
What is a Green New Deal?
The Green New Deal is an environmental version of economic stimulus, modelled upon US President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of massive public spending to create jobs after the 1930s depression.
It couples climate action with social action, creating jobs while reducing emissions, and reducing energy costs by adopting renewables. It’d come at a cost, however, to the fossil fuel industry.
The Greens want Australia to quit coal by 2030, and have an independent authority, Renew Australia, to manage a just transition for workers, create jobs and see no one left behind in the transition to 100% renewable energy.
Even the International Monetary Fund sees a global green fiscal stimulus, with investment in climate change action and transitioning to a low carbon economy, as the right response to the COVID crisis.
Green New Deals around the world
In the socially democratic Scandinavian countries, green-led economic recovery has been the go-to policy response to political, banking, fiscal and resource-based economic crises in recent decades.
Energy taxation, offset by cuts in personal income tax, and social security contributions have driven economic recovery. As a result, Nordic economies have grown by 28% from 2000–17, while carbon emissions have fallen by 18%.
In late 2019, before the onset of COVID, the European Union announced a Green New Deal worth €1 trillion in public and private investment over the next decade to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
However, this funding is no longer assured. The COVID crisis has put a hole in EU finances, caused divisions over spending priorities and seen few environmental strings attached to member country bailouts.
In the US, the Green New Deal featured strongly in the Obama administration’s grappling with the global financial crisis. Now, during the pandemic, it’s featuring again as a proposal from the Democrats.
Between September 2008 and December 2009, South Korea and China outstripped the post-GFC efforts of the rest of the G20 nations with their astonishing green stimulus spending of 5% and 3.1%, respectively, of GDP.
Today, South Korea is using its COVID response to trigger environmentally sustainable economic growth, spending US$61.9 billion to invest in wind, solar, smart grids, renewables, electric vehicles and recycling.
It’s clear nations around the world have decided a Green New Deal is exactly the right stimulus response to crises, including the current fallout from the global pandemic. So how is Australia tracking?
Australia risks being left behind
The lessons for Australia are, firstly, that it risks being left behind in the technological advances that come with shifting to a greener economy, if it neglects the environment in its COVID stimulus planning.
It should embrace the COVID crisis and the climate crisis as dual challenges, given Australia’s urgent need to reduce its emissions in electricity, transport, stationary energy, fugitive emissions and industrial processes.
Australia can be confident investment in clean energy that sets it on the path to carbon neutrality by 2050 will not only be rewarded economically, but also diplomatically, as it joins the global, willing climate coalition.
The UN chief economist, Elliott Harris, has called for Australia and other nations to
place more ambitious climate action and investment in clean energy at the centre of their COVID-19 recovery plans.
Instead, the Coalition government has given fossil fuels four times more stimulus funding than renewables, and has prioritised coal-fired power, carbon capture and storage, and gas industry expansion in its recent federal budget.
This is a risky investment strategy. The International Energy Agency sees a poor economic future for fossil fuels, with demand for coal on the decline and jobs in renewables expected to increase.
If the Coalition were to attempt it, a Green New Deal would ease the shift away from fossil fuels. It would focus, as such deals do elsewhere, on creating jobs by accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy. It’s time to get on board.
Making eco-conscious choices at the shops can be tricky when we’re presented with so many options, especially when it comes to milk. Should we buy plant-based milk, or dairy? We’ve looked at the evidence to help you choose.
Dairy has the biggest environmental footprint, by far
Any plant-based milk, be it made from beans, nuts or seeds, has a lighter impact than dairy when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the use of water and land. All available studies, including systematic reviews, categorically point this out.
A 2018 study estimates dairy to be around three times more greenhouse gas emission-intensive than plant-based milks.
In the case of cow’s milk, its global warming potential — measured as kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent per litre of milk — varies between 1.14 in Australia and New Zealand to 2.50 in Africa. Compare this to the global warming potential of plant-based milks, which, on average, is just 0.42 for almond and coconut milk and 0.75 for soy milk.
What’s more, dairy generally requires nine times more land than any of the plant-based alternatives. Every litre of cow’s milk uses 8.9 square metres per year, compared to 0.8 for oat, 0.7 for soy, 0.5 for almond and 0.3 for rice milk.
Water use is similarly higher for cow’s milk: 628 litres of water for every litre of dairy, compared to 371 for almond, 270 for rice, 48 for oat and 28 for soy milk.
Milks from nuts
Milk can be made from almost any nuts, but almond, hazelnut and coconut are proving popular. Not only do nut milks generally require smaller land areas, the trees they grow on absorb carbon and, at the end of their life, produce useful woody biomass.
Still, there are vast differences in the geographical conditions where various nut trees are grown.
California is the largest producer of almond milk in the world, followed by Australia.
Compared to other plant-based milk options, its water use is much higher and largely depends on freshwater irrigation. One kernel of California almond requires 12 litres of water, which raises questions about the industrial production of these nuts in water-scarce areas.
However the biggest environmental concern with almond production in the US is the high mortality of bees, used for tree cross-pollination. This might be because the bees are exposed to pesticides, including glyphosate, and the intensive industrial agriculture which drastically transforms nature’s fragile ecosystems.
In Australia, where almond orchards are smaller-scale and less industrialised, beekeepers do not experience such problems. Still, millions of bees are needed, and fires, drought, floods, smoke and heat damage can threaten their health.
Generally, the environmental performance of coconut milk is good – coconut trees use small amounts of water and absorb carbon dioxide.
Yet as coconuts are grown only in tropical areas, the industrial production of this milk can destroy wildlife habitat. Increasing global demand for coconut milk is likely to put further pressure on the environment and wildlife, and deepen these conflicts.
Hazelnut is a better option for the environment as the trees are cross-pollinated by wind which carries airborne dry pollen between neighbouring plants, not bees.
Hazelnuts also grow in areas with higher rainfall around the Black Sea, Southern Europe and in North America, demanding much less water than almond trees.
Hazelnut milk is already commercially available and although its demand and production are rising, the cultivation of the bush trees is not yet subjected to intensive large-scale operations.
Milks from legumes
Soy milk has been used for millennia in China and has already an established presence in the West, but the hemp alternative is relatively new.
All legumes are nitrogen fixing. This means the bacteria in plant tissue produce nitrogen, which improves soil fertility and reduces the need for fertilisers. Legumes are also water-efficient, particularly when compared with almonds and dairy.
Soy milk has a very good environmental performance in terms of water, global warming potential and land-use.
The US and Brazil are the biggest suppliers of soybeans, and the plant is very versatile when it comes to its commercial uses, with a large share of the beans used as livestock feed.
However, a major environmental concern is the need to clear and convert large swathes of native vegetation to grow soybeans. An overall reduction in the demand for meat and animal-based foods could potentially decrease the need to produce large amounts of soybeans for animal feed, but we’re yet to witness such changes.
Its seeds are processed for oil and milk, but the plant itself is very versatile — all its parts can be used as construction material, textile fibres, pulp and paper or hemp-based plastics.
Its roots grow deep, which improves the soil structure and reduces the presence of fungi. It’s also resistant to diseases, and it produces a lot of shade, which supresses the growth of weeds. This, in turn, cuts down the need for herbicides and pesticides.
Hemp requires more water than soy, but less than almond and dairy. Despite being one of the oldest crops used, particularly in Europe, hemp is produced in very low quantities.
Milks from grains
We can produce plant-based milk from almost any grains, but rice and oat are proving popular. However, they require more land compared with nut milks.
Rice milk has a big water footprint. More notably, it’s associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to the other plant-based options because methane-producing bacteria develop in the rice paddies.
Oat milk has been becoming increasingly popular around the world because of its overall environmental benefits.
But similar to soy, the bulk of oat production is used for livestock feed and any reduction in the demand for animal-based foods would decrease the pressure on this plant.
Currently grown in Canada and the US, most oat operations are large-scale monoculture, which means it’s the only type of crop grown in a large area. This practice depletes the soil’s fertility, limits the diversity of insects and increases the risk of diseases and pest infection.
Oats are also typically grown with glyphosate-based pesticides, which tarnishes its environmental credentials because it can cause glyphosate-resistant plant, animal and insect pathogens to proliferate.
The final message: diversify your choices
Organic versions of all these plant-based milks are better for the environment because they use, for example, fewer chemical fertilisers, they’re free from pesticides and herbicides, and they put less pressure on the soils. Any additives, be it fortifiers, such as calcium or vitamins, flavours or additional ingredients, such as sugar, coffee or chocolate, should be taken into account separately.
Packaging is also very important to consider. Packaging contributes 45% of the global warming potential of California’s almond milk. And it’s worth keeping in mind that wasting milk has a much bigger environmental footprint, and questions the ethics of how humans exploit the animal world.
If, as a consumer you are trying to reduce the environmental footprint of the milk you drink, the first message is you should avoid dairy and replace it with plant-based options.
The second message is it’s better to diversify the plant-based milks we use. Shifting to only one option, even if it’s the most environmentally friendly one for the time being, means the market demand may potentially become overexploited.
We are living through the greatest disruption of the postwar era; what is likely to be the defining historical period of our lives. And the disrupter is a piece of RNA surrounded by fat, a virus human beings have never before encountered.
A virus that ticks all the boxes for disaster: it is novel, it is highly contagious, it is transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, and it attacks and kills people whose immune systems have been undermined by disease, inequality, malnutrition, stress and age.
It’s only months since we were overwhelmed with the bushfire disaster. The climate emergency was upon us more viscerally than ever before. Sydney lost its summer to choking smoke; the glorious forests of the Great Dividing Range and eastern sea- board burnt with an unstoppable ferocity. Lives were lost, as were homes, businesses, communities, and a billion native animals. The koalas screaming in agony were heard around the world. This was our global future burning before our eyes.
Then came this virus. And it has shut down much of the world by freezing markets and informal economies that daily feed and service most of the people of the planet. But we should understand the virus as an ecological disaster, just like the climate emergency. They are not causally related. Rather, they are expressions of the same profound overburdening of the planet by anthropogenic excess.
The climate emergency has not abated with the pandemic. Extreme weather is everywhere on the planet. Syria is gripped by its worst drought in 900 years. Locusts are swarming over East Africa. We are warned the climatic sweet spot of the Holocene that has made complex societies possible for the last 6,000 years is coming to an end, to be replaced by unbearable heat in some of the world’s most populous places.
This is the end of the “good times” for the world, but it has been a long time coming. COVID-19 is simply an accelerant. Therefore, it is important now to focus on what has to be done, for all that stands between us and disaster is good government.
Many young people feel deeply pessimistic about the future. They have little confidence organised society can face profound threats, survive them and rebuild. But the world has done so, even within living memory with the astonishing recovery in Europe and Asia after World War II.
Critical moral decisions
In 1945, Europe lay in ruins. Eighty-five million people had perished, most of them civilians, deliberately murdered by starvation or industrial slaughter or burnt alive in their torched villages or fire-bombed cities. Sixty million people were displaced and took to the roads.
The total of lost or orphaned children has never been tallied. The 1944–45 winter had been terrible, crops had not been planted and there was no food. In Berlin, only the Russians seemed to know how to ration food and rebuild civil society: the other Allies were at a loss.
Civil society had been destroyed by oppression, cruelty and hunger. Scarcely any civilian who survived occupation ended the war with a clear conscience. People had to kill, steal, lie, inform on neighbours, refuse to help when asked, fail to fight when needed. And at the end, they had nothing. They amounted to millions upon millions of destitute, damaged people. A friend’s mother who spent the war in Trieste once admitted that there was no human depravity she had not witnessed.
Not only had the physical world been consumed by fire, so also had institutions, communities and infrastructure. Yet out of the carnage, modern Europe and the Soviet Union rebuilt their cities and homes and their civil societies. If the European Union and the former Eastern Bloc have problems now, their flourishing since 1945 has been a miracle. All have experienced a dramatic improvement in living standards in the past three-quarters of a century.
When this pandemic crisis ends, things will be very bad for those with weak, corrupt and incompetent governments. For those with good governments, critical moral decisions will be required: do we reinvest and rebuild positively, or do we inflict austerity to pay down the debt quickly?
The deaths will be proportionately fewer than in World War II, the buildings won’t be smashed, nor the sewers, water pipes and gas pipes shattered. Physically the world will still be there. Farms will still be producing food except where severe weather has destroyed crops. The shock and grief will be awful, and it will be the world’s turning point between collapse or recovery towards a new resilience.
JM Keynes’ 1940 book How to Pay for the War outlined a program of rationing, war bonds and currency creation that could produce the necessary funds without generating inflation. But the minute the second world war ended, 42% of the British workforce was made redundant.
How did the Allies pay for the peace without a return to the misery and chaos that were experienced after World War I? Rationing and austerity continued, but governments did not stop spending. The new British Labour government passed legislation mandating full employment; the existing Labor government in Australia in May 1945, issued its famous white paper, written by Dr HC Coombs titled Full Employment in Australia. We pre-empted the British, but we were of like mind.
Australia, by comparison, got off lightly from World War II. And Australia also had arguably the best government in its history under prime ministers Curtin and Chifley. They believed in the social contract that government was there to serve the people; that our Commonwealth was formed for the “common good”. They were great internationalists. They prosecuted the war, but they also committed from 1943 to building a better Australia for the people who had sacrificed so much to win it.
Their postwar reconstruction scheme, in just four years of war and four years of peace, established a welfare state and addressed historic injustices to Indigenous people who came under Commonwealth laws. They legislated to mandate full employment after the war, despite the demobilisation of the military and of war industries — and it worked.
They reformed the economy from the factory to the farm: General Motors-Holden, the Snowy Mountains Scheme and, this time, soldier settlements that were better planned and more successful. They invested in national and international air travel. They trained hundreds of thousands of unskilled workers to be skilled workers, and sent ex-service people to university. They opened Australia to non- British migration, changing us forever.
They lost office before they could implement Professor Sam Wadham’s massive Rural Reconstruction Scheme. But they also believed that the future depended on education and research, establishing our first research university, the Australian National University, to be a Princeton in the Pacific.
They inaugurated Commonwealth Scholarships and research funding. Our first PhDs began to graduate, and our academic gaze turned away from Oxbridge towards our Asian neighbours for the first time. They invested in the CSIRO. Another term of office may have delivered a national health service. We had to wait almost another 40 years for Medicare, but the four years after the war set up modern Australia.
A new accord?
This story is important to retell because it gives us hope — and a model. We need national reconstruction again: to transition to renewable energy, to restore fairness and security to our economy, to rebuild our rural and regional sectors that are beset by poverty, environmental stress and long-time marginalisation.
Climate change imperils our food security as it does our natural environment and wildlife. If we are to reconstruct Australia as a sustainable economy and society, then perhaps 60% of that effort needs to be in the bush.
National reconstruction requires political will, and political will needs a measure of bipartisan support to be effective. Menzies followed the social democratic Labor lead — social housing, support for universities, infrastructure construction. In the 1980s, the Prices and Incomes Accord was struck between unions and employers under the leadership of the Hawke Government. The accord lost its way after time, but initially it did bring down unemployment and inflation, in return for Medicare and new social transfers.
A new accord would be a different social contract. It would require a summit as before, after consultation and planning. It could be led by First Nations people with a mission to heal the nation and the land, starting with the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
This time its participants would be drawn from across the spectrum: farmers, business big and small, unions, universities and research, state and local government, the health and welfare sectors, culture and the arts. (Universities have played a vital role in changing course for this country in times of crisis and will do so again, just as their researchers, along with the CSIRO, are leading the fight against COVID-19.)
The accord itself could be a commitment to the guiding principles of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which connect social and economic justice to environmental justice.
This new accord would be a commitment to principles of practice that open doors to funding, tax incentives, advice and collaboration among sectors to build a new sustainable economy, turning Australia into the renewable energy powerhouse that the distinguished economist Professor Ross Garnaut envisages.
There would be no compulsion for businesses to sign on, but if they chose to be outside the tent, then they would not receive any benefits and opportunities.
No nation can truly flourish if its hinterland is degraded and unproductive. Global warming threatens our food security, our pastoralists and, as we saw in the summer of 2019–20, our forests and native wildlife. National reconstruction needs not merely to be bipartisan at the top: it must offer genuine participation in decision-making in how to transition to new industries and farming technologies.
We may need to start growing some crops under cover in highly controlled environments with careful water use and no pesticides. If the Netherlands can become the world’s second-largest food exporter after the United States, then we, too, in a more environmentally sensitive way than the Dutch, can build a high-tech food exporting industry that could replace coal and help feed a hungry world.
To do all this, we need a partnership between farmers, the private sector, workers, government and universities. If employers are to receive funding and research support from the public sector, then as their part of the accord they should commit to providing secure jobs and vocational training. They must be prepared to negotiate improving wages and support more generous welfare provision.
Above all, they need to endorse a government-funded Jobs Guarantee to get people back into the workforce with dignity and security: that is, real jobs with award wages, not work for the dole. The economy will not ‘bounce back’ if no one has money in their pocket.
It is to be hoped that the pandemic will bring an end to the distrust of science and learning that neo-liberalism has spread like poison through the rich world.
It will be time to rethink the tertiary and vocational sectors and fund research infrastructure in universities, alongside restoring the CSIRO and providing more job security for researchers. Our universities could then return to being servants of the public rather than fragile, semi-private corporations.
All this is fiscally possible if we accept that we can only pay back the debt by economic growth. Artificially balancing the budget via austerity leads to further impoverishment; investing in people and their enterprises to get on with it restores prosperity so that we can grow our way out of debt.
A fresh narrative
Government cannot do it all. Business is the larger part of society, and reconstruction cannot be done without their cooperative engagement, expertise, creativity and resources. But what is possible with the new accord is not a series of precise prescriptions for reform, but rather a narrative that can capture the trust and enthusiasm of an electorate that is disenchanted with politics and politicians.
People want our leaders to “come together”. The “Green New Deal” is an American idea; the United Kingdom wants a “green industrial revolution”; but we in Australia know how to strike accords and build institutionalised fairness.
Perhaps it does not matter what we call it: perhaps First Nations people will one day permit us to use their term Makarrata to express a new national social compact. We need to reconstruct Australia, better than we have before, and we need to do it for our very survival.
No one—no politician, no scientist, no economist, no bureaucrat, no business leader, no farmer, no pundit and no political party — has all the answers. But collectively we do, provided we can devolve consultation and much decision-making to the communities and regions directly affected. That will build resilience and draw on the experience and knowledge of those who are experts in their own worlds.
The great power of the human mind is that it can work with other minds: our greatest strength lies in each other.
This is an edited extract from What Happens Next? edited by Emma Dawson and Prof Janet McCalman AC, published by Melbourne University Publishing.
Ecologists and conservation experts in government, industry and universities are routinely constrained in communicating scientific evidence on threatened species, mining, logging and other threats to the environment, our new research has found.
Our study, just published, shows how important scientific information about environmental threats often does not reach the public or decision-makers, including government ministers.
In some cases, scientists self-censor information for fear of damaging their careers, losing funding or being misrepresented in the media. In others, senior managers or ministers’ officers prevented researchers from speaking truthfully on scientific matters.
This information blackout, termed “science suppression”, can hide environmentally damaging practices and policies from public scrutiny. The practice is detrimental to both nature and democracy.
Code of silence
Our online survey ran from October 25, 2018, to February 11, 2019. Through advertising and other means, we targeted Australian ecologists, conservation scientists, conservation policy makers and environmental consultants. This included academics, government employees and scientists working for industry such as consultants and non-government organisations.
Some 220 people responded to the survey, comprising:
88 working in universities
79 working in local, state or federal government
47 working in industry, such as environmental consulting and environmental NGOs
6 who could not be classified.
In a series of multiple-choice and open-ended questions, we asked respondents about the prevalence and consequences of suppressing science communication.
About half (52%) of government respondents, 38% from industry and 9% from universities had been prohibited from communicating scientific information.
Communications via traditional (40%) and social (25%) media were most commonly prohibited across all workplaces. There were also instances of internal communications (15%), conference presentations (11%) and journal papers (5%) being prohibited.
‘Ministers are not receiving full information’
Some 75% of respondents reported having refrained from making a contribution to public discussion when given the opportunity – most commonly in traditional media or social media. A small number of respondents self-censored conference presentations (9%) and peer-reviewed papers (7%).
Factors constraining commentary from government respondents included senior management (82%), workplace policy (72%), a minister’s office (63%) and middle management (62%).
Fear of barriers to advancement (49%) and concern about media misrepresentation (49%) also discouraged public communication by government respondents.
Almost 60% of government respondents and 36% of industry respondents reported unduly modified internal communications.
One government respondent said:
Due to ‘risk management’ in the public sector […] ministers are not receiving full information and advice and/or this is being ‘massaged’ by advisors (sic).
University respondents, more than other workplaces, avoided public commentary out of fear of how they would be represented by the media (76%), fear of being drawn beyond their expertise (73%), stress (55%), fear that funding might be affected (53%) and uncertainty about their area of expertise (52%).
One university respondent said:
I proposed an article in The Conversation about the impacts of mining […] The uni I worked at didn’t like the idea as they received funding from (the mining company).
Critical conservation issues suppressed
Information suppression was most common on the issue of threatened species. Around half of industry and government respondents, and 28% of university respondents, said their commentary on the topic was constrained.
Government respondents also reported being constrained in commenting on logging and climate change.
One government respondent said:
We are often forbidden (from) talking about the true impacts of, say, a threatening process […] especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat […] In this way the public often remains ‘in the dark’ about the true state and trends of many species.
University respondents were most commonly constrained in talking about feral animals. A university respondent said:
By being blocked from reporting on the dodgy dealings of my university with regards to my research and its outcomes I feel like I’m not doing my job properly. The university actively avoids any mention of my study species or project due to vested financial interests in some key habitat.
Industry respondents, more than those from other sectors, were constrained in commenting on the impacts of mining, urban development and native vegetation clearing. One industry respondent said:
A project […] clearly had unacceptable impacts on a critically endangered species […] the approvals process ignored these impacts […] Not being able to speak out meant that no one in the process was willing or able to advocate for conservation or make the public aware of the problem.
The system is broken
Of those respondents who had communicated information publicly, 42% had been harassed or criticised for doing so. Of those, 83% believed the harassers were motivated by political or economic interests.
Some 77 respondents answered a question on whether they had suffered personal consequences as a result of suppressing information. Of these, 18% said they had suffered mental health effects. And 21% reported increased job insecurity, damage to their career, job loss, or had left the field.
One respondent said:
I declared the (action) unsafe to proceed. I was overruled and properties and assets were impacted. I was told to be silent or never have a job again.
As a consultant working for companies that damage the environment, you have to believe you are having a positive impact, but after years of observing how broken the system is, not being legally able to speak out becomes harder to deal with.
Change is needed
We acknowledge that we receive grants involving contracts that restrict our academic freedom. And some of us self-censor to avoid risks to grants from government, resulting in personal moral conflict and a less informed public. When starting this research project, one of our colleagues declined to contribute for fear of losing funding and risking employment.
But Australia faces many complex and demanding environmental problems. It’s essential that scientists are free to communicate their knowledge on these issues.
Public servant codes of conduct should be revised to allow government scientists to speak freely about their research in both a public and private capacity. And government scientists and other staff should report to new, independent state and federal environment authorities, to minimise political and industry interference.
A free flow of information ensures government policy is backed by the best science. Conservation dollars would be more wisely invested, costly mistakes avoided and interventions more effectively targeted.
The Morrison government today declared it will axe buybacks of water entitlements from irrigators, placating farmers who say the system has damaged their livelihood and communities.
Instead, Water Minister Keith Pitt says the government will scale up efforts to save water by upgrading infrastructure for farming irrigators in the Murray Darling Basin.
The move will anger environmentalists, who say water buybacks are vital to restoring flows to Australia’s most important river system. It also contradicts findings from the government’s own experts this week who said farm upgrades increase water prices more than buyback water recovery.
The government has chosen a route not backed by evidence, and which will deliver a bad deal to taxpayers and the environment.
A brief history of water buybacks
Farmers along the Murray Darling are entitled to a certain amount of river water which they can use or sell. In 2008, the federal Labor government began buying some of these entitlements in an open-tender process known as “buybacks”. The purchased water was returned to the parched river system to boost the environment.
In 2012, the Murray Darling Basin Plan was struck. It stipulated that 2,750 billion litres of water would be bought back from irrigators and delivered to the environment every year. The buyback system was not universally supported – critics claim buybacks increase water prices, and hurt farmers by reducing the water available for irrigation.
The Coalition government came to office in 2013 and adopted a “strategic” approach to water buybacks. These purchases were made behind closed doors with chosen irrigators.
In a review of these buybacks released last month, the Australian National Audit Office found many of these taxpayer-funded deals were not good value for money.
The federal government ordered the review after controversy involving the 2017 purchase of water from two Queensland properties owned by Eastern Australia Agriculture.
The government paid A$80 million for the entitlements – an amount critics said was well over market value. The deal was also contentious because government frontbencher Angus Taylor was, before the purchase, a non-financial director of the company. The company also had links to the Cayman Islands tax haven.
Infrastructure subsidies: a flawed approach
The Coalition government is taking a different approach to recover water for the environment: subsidising water infrastructure on farms and elsewhere. This infrastructure includes lining ponds and possibly levees to trap and store water.
The subsidies have cost many billions of dollars yet recover water at a very much higher cost than reverse tenders. This approach also reduces the water that returns to streams and groundwater.
The justification for water infrastructure subsidies is that they are supposedly less damaging to irrigation communities. But the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) concluded in a report published this week that on-farm water infrastructure subsidies, while beneficial for their participants, “push water prices higher, placing pressure on the wider irrigation sector”. This is the very sector the subsidies purport to help.
So why would the government expand the use of water infrastructure when it costs more and isn’t good value for money? The answer may lie in this finding from the ABARES report:
Irrigators who hold large volumes of entitlement relative to their water use (and are frequently net sellers of water allocations) may benefit from higher water prices, as this increases the value of their entitlements.
Farmers with limited entitlement holdings however may be adversely affected, as higher water prices increase their costs and lowers their profitability.
In other words, the “big end of town” benefits – at taxpayers’ expense – while the small-scale irrigators lose out.
Adding insult to injury, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists released a detailed report this week showing the basin plan is failing to deliver the water expected, even after accounting for dry weather. Some two trillion litres of water is not in the rivers and streams of the basin and appears to have been consumed – a volume that could be more than four times the water in Sydney Harbour.
The Wentworth Group says stream flows may be less than expected because environmental water recovery has been undermined by “water-saving” infrastructure, which reduces the amount of water that would otherwise return to rivers and groundwater.
This infrastructure, on which taxpayers have spent over A$4 billion, has not had the desired effect. Research has found those who receive infrastructure subsidies increased water extractions by more than those who did not receive subsidies. That’s because farmers who were using water more efficiently often planted thirstier crops.
We deserve better
It’s clear taxpayer dollars are much better spent buying back water entitlements, through open tenders, rather than subsidising water infrastructure. We can, and must, do much better with water policy.
Today, the federal government has doubled down on wasteful spending at taxpayer expense – in a time of a COVID-induced recession.
So what is on offer from the Morrison government? Continuing to ignore its own experts’ advice and delivering yet more ineffective subsidies for water infrastructure. Our rivers, our communities, and all Australians deserve much better.
A vast transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is crucial to slowing climate change. But building solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy infrastructure requires mining for materials. If not done responsibly, this may damage species and ecosystems.
In our research, published today, we mapped the world’s potential mining areas and assessed how they overlap with biodiversity conservation sites.
We found renewable energy production will exacerbate the threat mining poses to biodiversity – the world’s variety of animals and plants. It’s fair to assume that in some places, the extraction of renewables minerals may cause more damage to nature than the climate change it averts.
Australia is well placed to become a leader in mining of renewable energy materials and drive the push to a low-carbon world. But we must act now to protect our biodiversity from being harmed in the process.
Mining to prevent climate change
Currently, about 17% of current global energy consumption is achieved through renewable energy. To further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this proportion must rapidly increase.
Building new renewable energy infrastructure will involve mining minerals and metals. Some of these include:
lithium, graphite and cobalt (mostly used in battery storage)
zinc and titanium (used mostly for wind and geothermal energy)
copper, nickle and aluminium (used in a range of renewable energy technologies).
The World Bank estimates the production of such materials could increase by 500% by 2050. It says more than 3 billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed to build the wind, solar and geothermal power, and energy storage, needed to keep global warming below 2℃ this century.
We mapped areas around the world potentially affected by mining. Our analysis involved 62,381 pre-operational, operational, and closed mines targeting 40 different materials.
We found mining may influence about 50 million km² of Earth’s land surface (or 37%, excluding Antarctica). Some 82% of these areas contain materials needed for renewable energy production. Of this, 12% overlaps with protected areas, 7% with “key biodiversity areas”, and 14% with remaining wilderness.
Our results suggest mining of renewable energy materials may increase in currently untouched and “biodiverse” places. These areas are considered critical to helping species overcome the challenges of climate change.
Yet, many of the minerals needed for renewable energy exist in important conservation areas.
For example, Australia is rich in lithium and already accounts for half of world production. Hard-rock lithium mines operate in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
This area has also been identified as a national biodiversity hotspot and is home to many native species. These include small marsupials such as the little red antechinus and the pebble-mound mouse, and reptiles including gecko and goanna species.
Australia is also ranked sixth in the world for deposits of rare earth elements, many of which are needed to produce magnets for wind turbines. We also have large resources of other renewables materials such as cobalt, manganese, tantalum, tungsten and zirconium.
It’s critical that mining doesn’t damage Australia’s already vulnerable biodiversity, and harm the natural places valued by Indigenous people and other communities.
In many cases, renewables minerals are found in countries where the resource sector is not strongly regulated, posing an even greater environmental threat. For example, the world’s second-largest untouched lithium reserve exists in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt pan. This naturally diverse area is mostly untouched by mining.
The renewables expansion will also require iron and steel. To date, mining for iron in Brazil has almost wiped out an entire plant community, and recent dam failures devastated the environment and communities.
We need proactive planning
Strong planning and conservation action is needed to avoid, manage and prevent the harm mining causes to the environment. However global conservation efforts are often naive to the threats posed by significant growth in renewable energies.
Some protected areas around the world prevent mining, but more than 14% contain metal mines in or near their boundaries. Consequences for biodiversity may extend many kilometres from mining sites.
Meanwhile, other areas increasingly important for conservation are focused on the needs of biodiversity, and don’t consider the distribution of mineral resources and pressures to extract them. Conservation plans for these sites must involve strategies to manage the mining threat.
There is some good news. Our analyses suggest many required materials occur outside protected areas and other conservation priorities. The challenge now is to identify which species are most at risk from current and future mining development, and develop strong policies to avoid their loss.
The map in this article has been updated, because due to a technical issue the previous version omitted some information.
It’s been 13 years since the Australian Government set out to develop the Murray-Darling Basin Plan with the goal of finding a more sustainable balance between irrigation and the environment.
Like much of the history of water sharing in the Murray-Darling over the last 150 years, the process has been far from smooth. However, significant progress has been achieved, with about 20% of water rights recovered from agricultural users and redirected towards environmental flows.
One of the most difficult debates has been over how the water should be recovered.
Initially most occurred via “buybacks” of water rights from farmers. While relatively fast and inexpensive, opposition to buybacks emerged due to concerns about their effects on water prices and irrigation farmers and regional communities.
This led to a new emphasis on infrastructure programs including farm upgrades in which farmers received funding to improve their irrigation systems in return for surrendering water rights.
While these farm upgrades are more expensive, it was thought that they would have fewer negative effects on farmers and communities.
The other type of program is farm upgrades which offer farmers funding to improve their irrigation infrastructure in return for a portion of their water rights.
To date 255 gigalitres of water has been recovered through farm upgrades at a cost of about $1 billion.
Annual volume of water rights recovered for the environment since 2007-08
Water recovery has increased prices
As would be expected, the dominant short-term driver of prices is water availability, with large price increases during droughts. The dominant longer-term drivers include lower average rainfall related to climate change and the emergence of new irrigation crops including almonds.
While water recovery has played less of a role, buybacks and farm upgrades have still reduced the supply of water to farmers and increased prices to some extent.
Our modelling suggests water prices in the southern basin are around $72 per megalitre higher on average as a result of water recovery measures, with the effects varying year-to-year depending on conditions.
Modelled water allocation prices with and without water recovery
Farm upgrades increase prices more than buybacks
Farm upgrades are often viewed as an opportunity to save water and produce “more crop per drop”.
But they can also encourage farmers to increase their water use as they seek to make the most of their new infrastructure: sometimes referred to as a “rebound effect”.
While there have been concerns about rebound effects for some time, there has been limited evidence until recently.
As would be expected, our study finds that upgraded farms have benefited in terms of profits and productivity. However, we also find large rebound effects, with upgraded farms increasing their water use by between 10% and 50%.
To get the extra water they need to buy it from other farmers, putting pressure on prices. We find the resulting price impact to be much more than the impact of buying back water. Per unit of water recovered, it is about double that of buybacks.
These higher water prices increase the risk that irrigation assets – including some newly upgraded systems – could become stranded as price sensitive irrigation activities become less profitable.
No easy answers
Recovering water through off-farm infrastructure is one alternative, however the most effective projects have already been developed, leaving cost-effective water saving schemes harder to find.
This brings us back to buybacks. Because buybacks are cheaper than farm infrastructure programs, there is more scope to combine them with regional development investments to help offset negative impacts on communities.
The challenge is that in a connected water market the flow-on effects on water prices and farmers can be complex and difficult to predict, making it hard to know where to direct development investments.
A potential middle ground is rationalisation, where parts of the water supply network are decommissioned, and affected farmers are compensated both for their water rights and for being disconnected from water supply. This approach has less effect on water prices and allows regional development initiatives to be targeted to the affected areas.
However, rationalisation can be hard to implement given it requires negotiating with all affected farmers and all levels of government.
Given the complexity of the Murray-Darling Basin, water policy is far from simple. While it is clear more water will be needed to put the basin on a sustainable footing, there are no easy options.
Further progress will require careful policy design to help ease adjustment pressure on farmers and regional communities.