What actions are required to implement nature-based solutions to Oceania’s most pressing sustainability challenges? That’s the question addressed by the recently released Brisbane Declaration on ecosystem services and sustainability in Oceania.
Compiled following a forum earlier this year in Brisbane, featuring researchers, politicians and community leaders, the declaration suggests that Australia can help Pacific Island communities in a much wider range of ways than simply responding to disasters such as tropical cyclones.
Many of the insights offered at the forum were shocking, especially for Australians. Over the past few years, many articles, including several on The Conversation, have highlighted the losses of beaches, villages and whole islands in the region, including in the Solomons, Catarets, Takuu Atoll and Torres Strait, as sea level has risen. But the forum in Brisbane highlighted how little many Australians understand about the implications of these events.
Over the past decade, Australia has experienced a range of extreme weather events, including Tropical Cyclone Debbie, which hit Queensland in the very week that the forum was in progress. People who have been directly affected by these events can understand the deep emotional trauma that accompanies damage to life and property.
At the forum, people from several Pacific nations spoke personally about how the tragedy of sea-level rise is impacting life, culture and nature for Pacific Islanders.
One story, which has become the focus of the play Mama’s Bones, told of the deep emotional suffering that results when islanders are forced to move from the land that holds their ancestors’ remains.
The forum also featured a screening of the film There Once Was an Island, which documents people living on the remote Takuu Atoll as they attempt to deal with the impact of rising seas on their 600-strong island community. Released in 2011, it shows how Pacific Islanders are already struggling with the pressure to relocate, the perils of moving to new homes far away, and the potentially painful fragmentation of families and community that will result.
Their culture is demonstrably under threat, yet many of the people featured in the film said they receive little government or international help in facing these upheavals. Australia’s foreign aid budgets have since shrunk even further.
As Stella Miria-Robinson, representing the Pacific Islands Council of Queensland, reminded participants at the forum, the losses faced by Pacific Islanders are at least partly due to the emissions-intensive lifestyles enjoyed by people in developed countries.
What can Australians do to help? Obviously, encouraging informed debate about aid and immigration policies is an important first step. As public policy researchers Susan Nicholls and Leanne Glenny have noted,
in relation to the 2003 Canberra bushfires, Australians understand so-called “hard hat” responses to crises (such as fixing the electricity, phones, water, roads and other infrastructure) much better than “soft hat” responses such as supporting the psychological recovery of those affected.
Similarly, participants in the Brisbane forum noted that Australian aid to Pacific nations is typically tied to hard-hat advice from consultants based in Australia. This means that soft-hat issues – like providing islanders with education and culturally appropriate psychological services – are under-supported.
The Brisbane Declaration calls on governments, aid agencies, academics and international development organisations to do better. Among a series of recommendations aimed at preserving Pacific Island communities and ecosystems, it calls for the agencies to “actively incorporate indigenous and local knowledge” in their plans.
At the heart of the recommendations is the need to establish mechanisms for ongoing conversations among Oceanic nations, to improve not only understanding of each others’ cultures but of people’s relationships with the environment. Key to these conversations is the development of a common language about the social and cultural, as well as economic, meaning of the natural environment to people, and the building of capacity among all nations to engage in productive dialogue (that is, both speaking and listening).
This capacity involves not only training in relevant skills, but also establishing relevant networks, collecting and sharing appropriate information, and acknowledging the importance of indigenous and local knowledge.
Apart from the recognition that Australians have some way to go to put themselves in the shoes of our Pacific neighbours, it is very clear that these neighbours, through the challenges they have already faced, have many valuable insights that can help Australia develop policies, governance arrangements and management approaches in our quest to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
This article was co-written by Simone Maynard, Forum Coordinator and Ecosystem Services Thematic Group Lead, IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.
This article is part of an ongoing series from the Post-Truth Initiative, a Strategic Research Excellence Initiative at the University of Sydney. The series examines today’s post-truth problem in public discourse: the thriving economy of lies, bullshit and propaganda that threatens rational discourse and policy.
The project brings together scholars of media and communications, government and international relations, physics, philosophy, linguistics, and medicine, and is affiliated with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), the Sydney Environment Institute and the Sydney Democracy Network.
I grew up in the Long Island suburbs of New York and have vivid memories of running behind the “fog trucks”. These trucks went through the neighbourhoods spraying DDT for mosquito control until it was banned in 1972.
I didn’t know it until much later, but that experience, and exposure, was extended due to the pesticide industry’s lies and tactics – what is now labelled “post-truth”.
Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. It was a beautifully written, if distressing, bit of what we today call “research translation”. The “silent spring” was the impact of DDT as songbird species were killed off.
Carson tried to expose the chemical industry’s disinformation. For doing so, she was roundly and untruthfully attacked as a communist and an opponent of progress. Silent Spring was one of the most popular and vetted overviews of environmental science of all time. Yet lies and bullshit prevented a decent policy response for a decade.
And the lies won’t go away. In 2007, one of the think-tanks responsible for climate science misinformation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, began reiterating one of the main refuted claims about Carson. She was said to be responsible for millions of deaths due to the ban on DDT to control mosquitoes that spread malaria.
The reality is that while DDT was banned for agriculture in the US – and spraying on kids in suburban neighbourhoods – it was never banned for anti-malarial use. Even now. But the political right and the dirtiest chemical industry players in all of industrial capitalism have long painted environmentalists as killers – of people, progress and jobs.
It’s a carefully manufactured campaign of lies and disinformation. As a result, many people believe Carson is a flat-out mass murderer – not a hero who beautifully blended care for human health and nonhuman nature in one of the most important and challenging books of the 20th century.
Lies and smears have a long history
This anti-environmentalist tactic of countering critiques of industrial impacts on the planet with lies, obfuscation and defamation has a long history. It goes back at least to establishment attacks on the US municipal housekeeping movement in the progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Municipal housekeeping in particular was primarily a women’s movement to clean up cities. This eventually led to the development of formal offices of public health and public planning in local governments.
The opposition – from meatpackers to fertiliser makers to the waste industry – labelled these women bad housekeepers. They argued that the only reason women wanted to “mother” and keep house in the community was because they were so bad at such things at home – that municipal housekeeping was only a movement against domestic housekeeping.
In other words, they were not real women and were unconcerned with anyone but themselves.
Not surprisingly, the polluting industries were at the heart of such bullshit attacks. And in both this example from the early 20th century and the Carson example from the 1960s, industry used a very gendered attack as part of the post-truth campaign.
The theme of industrial lies covering environmental damage continued in the 1980s in the Pacific Northwest timber wars. Once again, environmentalists were scapegoated for the loss of timber jobs.
These job losses were primarily due to automation. But the controversy over the endangered spotted owl allowed the timber industry to create another narrative – that environmentalists cared about birds more than jobs, that they wouldn’t be happy until the economy was devastated, and that all of the changes that harmed timber workers were due to environmental regulation – not the industry itself.
The attack on science ramped up then as well. When scientists declared that each pair of owls needed a certain exclusive range, and so protecting them from extinction would entail preserving whole forests, the industry-captured Forest Service simply shrank the recommendation.
The very real environmental science was dismissed. Subsequent policy was based in fantasy, wishful thinking and the lies of the industry. The timber wars were another example of science on the one hand and industry lies – supported by government – on the other.
The history of climate change denialism since the 1980s has really been the culmination of the attack on environmental science.
It has been based on the production of lies developed by the fossil fuel industry through industry-funded conservative think-tanks, laundered through conservative foundations, spun and repeated by right-wing media outlets, and adopted as ideology by the Republican Party. Its representatives are supported by even more industry and conservative funding of elections, or face opposition from others if they don’t comply.
This is, as Riley Dunlap and Aaron McCright have written, a well-funded, highly complex and relatively co-ordinated denial machine. It includes “contrarian scientists, fossil fuel corporations, conservative think tanks, and various front groups”, along with “amateur climate bloggers … public relations firms, astroturf groups, conservative media and pundits, and conservative politicians”.
The goal is simple and clear: no regulation on industry, and what environmental sociologist Robert Brulle calls the “institutionalisation of delay” on climate policy. The tools are simple as well: lies, obfuscation, defamation and the creation of an image of scientific uncertainty.
What is the current state of affairs after 30 years of this climate denial machine?
In the US, at least 180 congressional members and senators are declared climate deniers. They’ve received more than US$82 million in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry and its partners.
This is a long, complicated and well-trod story told, among others, by Naomi Oreskes in Merchants of Doubt, and by Michael Mann in The Madhouse Effect. It has been going on a long time.
The Republican Party’s fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favouring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over co-operation and conciliation.
So it was “big political money” – not the industry, not the Koch brothers’ campaign, not an all-out effort to shift public opinion, just “political money”. Democratic hubris becomes a central reason for Republicans believing in fake science. The argument is that this was a reaction to President Barack Obama’s regulatory approach in his second term, as if denialism didn’t exist before 2012.
And then there’s the idea that this is a bipartisan problem – of extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric – rather than one the anti-environmental right created.
Brulle took to Twitter to criticise the story – primarily the short timeframe. Clearly, climate obfuscation doesn’t start in 2008, when The New York Times story starts. The climate change denial machine has been up and running since at least 1988, 20 years longer than the story suggests.
Brulle was also livid that a story on the social aspects of climate discourse did not cite a single expert. This was despite there being hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and books on the denial machine.
So even the major media refuse to clearly expose the undermining of real environmental science, and the creation of lies and bribes to distort public policymaking. But this work is out there. It’s really the thorough work done on the climate denial machine that lays out the methodology of the development of environmental distortions, lies and post-truth discourse.
And, again, this is the core example of the evolution of environmental bullshit: a long history of industry creation of lies; conservative funding of think-tanks, front groups and the echo chamber; the development of an ideological imperative of denialism; and then the necessity of completely groundless bullshit to shore up the lies. It’s all there.
This methodology has clearly been used here in Australia. Graham Redfearn, writing for the desmog blog and The Guardian, has done amazing and thorough work on the denial machines in the US and Australia – and their links. In Australia, a clear link exists between climate denialism and the coal industry.
Many on the right, including the current and past prime ministers, parrot the lies and PR language of the industry – energy poverty, coal is cheap, clean coal is possible, 10,000 jobs, etc. It’s a tale as old as tobacco, lead, timber wars and DDT. It’s as old as industries that know their products do public harm, but lie to keep them in use.
The point here is simply to acknowledge what many have argued about the whole idea of “post-truth” – it’s not anything new, but just more of the same.
Environmentalists have long seen the propagation of lies, piles of bullshit, the dismissal of science, and the creation of mythologies as a consistent core of corporate misbehaviour – and, unfortunately, conservative ideology.
You can read other pieces in the post-truth series here.
Moves by major supermarkets to stop providing free plastic bags could earn these businesses more than A$1 million a year, but may only have a small impact on the environment.
Australia’s two supermarket giants, Woolworths and Coles, have announced that their stores will stop offering their regular plastic bags within 12 months. Instead, customers will be able to buy a more durable plastic bag at 15 cents apiece, or simply bring their own.
These bags are factored into the cost of doing business for these supermarkets. There are costs beyond just the bags themselves, such as the costs associated with sourcing and negotiating with packaging suppliers, procuring them, shipping and warehousing them, and distributing them to stores only to then give them away.
Supermarket margins are already feeling the strain of price deflation. These businesses are generally making less than 6c in the dollar, so the opportunity to phase out this cost certainly makes good business sense. The table below provides an estimate of current costs.
While retailers stand to pocket this saving, the switch to stronger, multi-use plastic bag brings with it its own costs. To begin with, the bags alone cost more (9c each) and also have associated procurement costs.
However, the new scheme will immediately reduce customers’ bag usage. Being optimistic, it would be reasonable to see an 80% decline in plastic bag use as shoppers actively search for alternatives to free bags.
Most shoppers will probably reuse the 15c bag, or look to other options like canvas bags, polyethylene bags or cardboard boxes. In turn, while the new re-usable bag may cost more than the thinner single-use bag, fewer will be used and therefore ordered. Retailers can expect to see a reduction in these packaging costs.
With each bag costing almost 3c, retailers stand to save more than A$170 million a year in direct costs. Selling these new bags at 15c each effectively creates another revenue stream potentially adding up to A$71 million in gross profit (6c x 1.18 billion units).
It might not actually reduce bags
In 2013, Target reverted back to providing free plastic bags after three years of charging 10c per bag. Other than hardware retailer Bunnings, no other large retailer has initiated a voluntary ban on single-use plastic bags.
Some Australian state and federal governments have been pushing for single-use plastic bag ban for almost 10 years. South Australia was the first to ban plastic bags from supermarkets in 2009, followed by the ACT in 2010, Northern Territory in 2011 and Tasmania in 2012.
In 2016 the Queensland Government released a discussion paper on the proposed ban. It is predicted all states will fall into line by mid-2018.
The past impact of applying a charge to the use of plastic bags has provided positive, but mixed results. In Australia, Bunnings reported an 80% reduction after implementing a charge for plastic bags, while a 2008 trial undertaken in three Victorian regional towns by Coles, Woolworths and IGA resulted in a 79% reduction.
In 2002, Ireland applied a 15 pence (22c) charge to single-use plastic bags, claiming a 90% reduction within 6 months (this was before the transition to the euro currency in the same year). Then in 2007 it increased the charge to 22 euro cents (32c) in response to increased bag usage. Sadly, shoppers had become conditioned to the 15p charge and returned to their old habits.
The UK government likewise reported an 85% reduction in single-use plastic bags in the first 6 months after a 5p charge (8c) was implemented in 2015. Similar results have been reported in the US, with a 94% reduction in Los Angeles County from the introduction of a charge for bags.
In the above cases (excluding Australian examples), single-use bags were still available, however a levy was applied, creating revenue for governments to channel back into environmental programs. This model is not the planned approach for Australia, were all single-use bags will be replaced with either the heavy duty (>35 micron, LDPE) option at 15c or the “green” polyethylene bag.
Charging for bags has minimal impact on the environment
Unfortunately, introducing a charge for bags doesn’t help the environment in isolation. While plastic bags represent only about 2% of landfill, there is certainly sufficient scientific evidence that plastic bags do present risks to marine life and clog waterways.
However, simply charging for a plastic bag, without directing these funds into environmental programs, does not necessarily resolve the problem. Shoppers slowly return to old habits, governments and retailers stop educating consumers and re-usable bags soon make their way into water ways and landfill.
In the US, studies indicated 40% of shoppers continued to use disposable bags, despite a 5 cent levy.
Moving to a reusable option also doesn’t stop people discarding these new bags either. Another US study found many people still threw away reusable bags.
Ultimately, “banning the bag” is only the beginning. Retailers will need to remedy customer complaints as the phasing out of plastic bags begins.
Like UK retailers, Australian supermarkets could choose to funnel some of the profits derived from the 15c reusable bag into community programs or environmental groups. Australian governments will also need fund ongoing education campaigns to draw attention to bans, alternatives and outcomes.
Cities have always been eco(nomic)cities but rarely eco(logical)cities. Today, growing inequality and environmental degradation undermine the very conditions of life as we have known it. Continuing business and urbanisation as usual will make this problem worse.
But citizens can only so do much. One hope for our cities, identified in my research, is that more and more businesses put ecological and social sustainability at the core of their performance model.
Companies that lead the way
Companies like commercial carpet tile manufacturer Interface Carpets did this a generation ago when it abandoned the linear “take-make-waste” model of production. Instead, it embraced a commitment to eliminating any negative impact on the environment.
With the input of an “eco dream team” made up of pragmatic philosophers and biomimicry experts, the company adopted a visionary plan, “Mission Zero”.
The Interface business was redesigned along circular economy lines to eliminate oil from the production of synthetic carpet tiles. This achievement will be largely completed by Interface’s target year 2020. At the same time, the business has eliminated waste, is powered by 100% renewable energy and uses efficient transportation.
But environmental wellbeing is not all Interface is committed to. Social equity is also a company goal.
Interface’s Netherlands plant is pioneering collaboration with a social enterprise that employs people at a distance from the labour market. This enterprise is organising the cleaning and reuse of carpet tiles, large proportions of which are replaced before their product expiry date.
Interface’s Minto plant, on the outskirts of Sydney, has taken the corporate lead internationally to refashion the “factory as a forest” as part of the new Climate Take Back strategy.
The goal is not only to reduce the negative impact on the environment but to have a positive impact through restorative action. How this will be done is still to be determined, but it is objectives like Mission Zero that have driven innovation in the past.
The Australian social enterprise Soft Landing first established just north of Wollongong provides jobs for people experiencing disadvantage. They disassemble and recycle the materials of mattresses that otherwise get dumped in landfill.
Just like Interface, Soft Landing is exploring new interdependencies between for-profit firms with a commitment to environmental sustainability and for-purpose social enterprise.
Having worked with key industry partners over many years, Soft Landing is co-ordinating a product stewardship scheme that enrols firms in voluntarily adopting sustainability protocols for mattress making and unmaking.
Mattresses are a problem waste stream, and this initiative will help roll out Soft Landing’s innovative “waste to wages” model, significantly reducing landfill while also creating jobs.
A carpet manufacturer and mattress recycler are showing the way toward repairing and restoring the social and environmental fabric, and pushing policy along as they do so. This is jobs and growth in a new register. If they can do it, so can others.
Now for the construction sector…
Now we need the urban building sector to take notice and attend to the context in which carpet and mattresses are housed.
Rather than catering to demand for the cheapest housing that conforms to the most basic of BASIX, we need to see some leadership with housing that truly contributes to environmental and social restoration and repair.
Housing developers could race to the top by experimenting with:
Interface and Soft Landing are successful businesses that show what can happen when commitments to building a better world become central to their brand. If we can’t rely on our politicians to listen to the warnings of the Anthropocene, we can at least turn to ethically attuned business to help make ecological cities a reality.
Working with a reparative ecological approach and a commitment to socio-economic inclusion, everyone can be part of a solution. Overcoming inequality and environmental degradation is key to ensuring that ecocities are not another excuse for business as usual in a new guise.
You can read other articles in the series here. The Ecocity World Summit is being hosted by the University of Melbourne, Western Sydney University, the Victorian government and the City of Melbourne in Melbourne from July 12-14.
As President Donald Trump mulls over whether to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, it is hard to imagine that he’s listening to the experts. US climate researchers are being so stifled, ignored or blackballed that France has now offered sanctuary to these misunderstood souls.
One might prefer to think of Trump as an outlier in an otherwise environmentally sane world. But alarmingly, there’s just too much evidence to the contrary.
A recent analysis, led by Guillaume Chapron of Sweden’s Agricultural University, reveals a rising tide of assaults on environmental safeguards worldwide. If nothing else, it illustrates the sheer range and creativity of tactics used by those who seek to profit at the expense of nature.
The assaults on environmental protections are so diverse that Chapron and his colleagues had to devise a new “taxonomy” to categorise them all. They have even set up a public database to track these efforts, giving us a laundry list of environmental rollbacks from around the world.
One might perhaps hope that species staring extinction in the face would be afforded special protection. Not in the western US states of Idaho and Montana, where endangered gray wolves have been taken off the endangered species list, meaning they can be shot if they stray outside designated wilderness or management areas.
In Western Australia, an endangered species can be legally driven to extinction if the state’s environment minister orders it and parliament approves.
Think diverse ecosystems are important? In Canada, not so much. There, native fish species with no economic, recreational or indigenous value don’t get any legal protection from harm.
And in France – a crucial flyway for Eurasian and African birds – killing migratory birds is technically illegal. But migrating birds could be shot out of the sky anyway because the environment minister ordered a delay in the law’s enforcement.
In South Africa, the environment minister formerly had authority to limit environmental damage and oversee ecological restoration at the nation’s many mining sites. But that power has now been handed over to the mining minister, raising fears of conflict between industry and environmental interests.
In Brazil, the famous Forest Code that has helped to reduce deforestation rates in the Amazon has been seriously watered down. Safeguards for forests along waterways and on hillsides have been weakened, and landowners who illegally fell forests no longer need to replant them.
And in Indonesia, it’s illegal to carry out destructive open-pit mining in protected forest areas. But aggressive mining firms are forcing the government to let them break the law anyway, or else face spending public money on legal battles.
In many parts of the world, those who criticise environmentally destructive corporations are getting hit with so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation”, or SLAPP suits.
In Peru, for instance, a corporation that was mowing down native rainforest to grow “sustainable” cacao for chocolate routinely used lawsuits and legal threats to intimidate critics.
That’s before we’ve even discussed climate change, which you might not be allowed to do in the US anyway. Proposed legislation would prohibit the government from considering climate change as a threat to any species. No wonder researchers want to move overseas.
As the above examples show, essential environmental safeguards are being conveniently downsized, diminished, ignored or swept under the carpet all over the world.
Viewed in isolation, each of these actions might be rationalised or defended – a small compromise made in the name of progress, jobs or the economy. But in a natural world threatened with “death by a thousand cuts”, no single wound can be judged in isolation.
Without our hard-won environmental protections, we would all already be breathing polluted air, drinking befouled water, and living in a world with much less wildlife.
This article is an edited version of a blog post that originally appeared here.
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.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed when confronted with reports of the second mass bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef in as many years. But there is a way to help scientists monitor the reef’s condition.
CoralWatch is a citizen science program started at The University of Queensland 15 years ago, with two main aims: to monitor the environment on a vast scale, and to help people get informed about marine science.
These goals come together with coral health monitoring. Divers, snorkelers or people walking around reef areas during low tides can send us crucial information about coral bleaching, helping us to build detailed pictures of the health of different reefs.
Participants can use a colour chart, backed up through the CoralWatch app or website, to measure accurately the colour and type of coral they see. The chart covers 75% of known corals, and can be used with no prior training.
We also ask people to enter the type of coral (branching, boulder, plate or soft), the location, and the weather. This allows scientists to identify the location and extent of any problems quickly (and is an excellent way to learn more about our reefs).
In fact, you don’t even have to go to a reef to participate and discover through CoralWatch; we have classroom and virtual reef systems, and just talking the problem through can help.
The graphs shown below are samples of CoralWatch data from the northern and southern reef during 2016’s catastrophic mass bleaching event, while the pair of graphs further down the page show data from just a few days ago at Lady Elliot Island and the very remote North Mariana Islands in the West pacific.
The Heron Island graph shows a healthy reef, as the southern areas of the reef escaped the worst of the bleaching last year. In contrast, Monsoon Reef (which lies off Port Douglas) and many others in the north bleached badly, or in some cases simply died.
Scores averaging between four and six are normal and represent good levels of symbiotic algae, which generate nutrients for the coral. Scores below three signify that coral is in distress.
The impact of this year’s mass bleaching is still being quantified. However, reefs in the middle section and far south of the reef – such as Lady Elliot Island – are now showing varying degrees of bleaching, from light to severe. Many of the remaining corals in the north are also showing signs of bleaching again.
What seems certain is that we will lose many more corals, along with the fish and invertebrate life they support, again this year.
The results for the North Mariana Islands, from a CoralWatch survey conducted last week, shows mid-level coral bleaching and demonstrates that even very remote reefs are not climate-proof.
CoralWatch doesn’t only help build a detailed picture of reef health. Like other citizen science projects, such as Reef Check, it can help speed up our fatally slow response to climate change. There are three key benefits.
First, we need to improve mutual understanding between scientists and the public. The CoralWatch mantra is: tell me and I’ll forget; teach me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll learn. Citizen science is a natural fit for everyone, no matter your level of education or knowledge.
Children are the citizens of the future, and helping them to understand their changing world is a moral and social imperative. CoralWatch works closely with schools and groups like the Marine Teachers Association of Queensland, and is used in more than 75 countries worldwide.
Second, we need to encourage lifestyle change. Many people, as they become more engaged in citizen science, will naturally adopt more environmentally friendly habits. Getting involved in protecting the Great Barrier Reef – and other citizen science projects – can be a great dose of perspective on our place in the natural world.
However, as personally rewarding as they can be, individual lifestyle choices alone won’t deliver the rapid and widespread change we need to save our reefs. That’s why we need to bridge the disconnect between what most of Australia wants and the politicians who ultimately have the power to fast-track change. Citizen scientists are also informed voters and consumers, who can demand better policies from companies and governments.
The future of the Great Barrier Reef is in the hands of Australians, and it will take all of us to preserve it for our children.