The challenge for our generation is to create an enduring way of being, in Australia and around the world, so that our children may look forward to an indefinite future of healthy life in a healthy landscape. Appropriate economic and social processes will be essential to creating such a collective lifestyle, but our agricultural and other involvements in the natural world of course have an even more direct role.
This topic was raised in a commentary by Braidwood local Ben Gleeson that questions much official thinking about rendering the land “sustainable”. He champions the idea that our duality of productive farmland, on the one hand, and wild nature, on the other, is inappropriate. Before getting to Ben’s ideas, I want to set a broader perspective.
I posted recently a vision for a perennial future that I wrote a while back. It included the notion of human enclaves surrounded by wild nature, so that wild nature can thrive around us and without our interference. My thinking was that of course “wild nature” did fine without us for the greater part of Earth’s very long history, and that the best thing we can do for it is to leave it alone.
However there is another perspective on this question of what a viable future may be. For me it comes from the obvious fact that we humans are having a dramatic effect on the natural world, globally. This means we are now custodians of the planet, whether we acknowledge it or not. In other words, we have such power over so much that no part of the world is beyond our influence. We had therefore better think about how we might wield our power, so as to preserve some semblance of a healthy biosphere, with us in it.
In many of the more populated or industrialised parts of the world there is little left that we would call wild nature. We sustain ourselves with the illusion, perhaps supported by David Attenborough’s striking creature features, that there is still a lot of wild nature out there, but it is rapidly shrinking.
Of course we have nature reserves within which we presume wild nature is permitted to operate. However there is vigorous debate, even in mainstream thinking, about whether and how much a reserve should be managed by humans. Should it, for example, be protected from fire, but then risk catastrophically large and intense fires? Should it then be systematically burnt? If so, how much, how often, and with what intention?
These questions have a particular pertinence in Australia. It has been slowly dawning on us that the Australia our white forebears invaded was not a natural landscape. That realisation has now been made dramatically explicit with the publication of a remarkable book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, by historian Bill Gammage. Gammage argues, from abundant evidence, that before whites arrived the entire continental landscape was managed in a comprehensive, intricate and intimate system the like of which the world may not have seen anywhere else. It existed across many climate zones and across diverse language groups. It existed in Tasmania, suggesting it dated back beyond 11,000 years ago, when the rising oceans cut Tasmania off from the mainland.
Every person was a custodian of the locality they were born into. The system involved fire, but many other tools and practices as well, and relied on intimate knowledge of the organisms and climate in the locality. Gammage suggests that even relatively remote places like the “alpine” zones were managed, though less intensively.
This means that in Australia we don’t even know what a natural landscape might look like. After the indigenous system was disrupted the grasslands, about which white newcomers wrote lyrically, declined, woods sprang up in many places where there was grass before, rivers and creeks became eroded and incised so the groundwater was depleted, and so on in a cascade of change that continues.
As well as the loss of the indigenous management, the land had previously lost its prime herbivores, the large marsupials that became extinct about 50,000 years ago. Those extinctions may have resulted from the arrival of people 60,000 or more years ago. With many formerly key species extinct, with many exotic species now present, and with no clear record of what existed before people arrived, we simply don’t know what a “natural” Australian landscape might be.
So really it is up to us in Australia to discover what a sustainable landscape might be. If we don’t know, then we have to experiment. There are many ideas around at present, and many are being put into practice at some scale, but these things take time to develop, especially at the large scale of a catchment, let alone a continent. So my thought has been that we will want to devolve these experiments to a local and regional scale, and let many different groups see what they can create. Over time the better options should become evident.
Of course I presume some level of rationality, which hardly exists in our political culture at the moment. If we can’t apply some level of knowledge, experience and wisdom, and instead remain trapped in reactive shouting, and pandering to the presently wealthy, then there’s really nothing to be said anyway, and we will suffer the consequent continuing degradation of the landscape, and the world.
So now to Ben’s ideas. He makes some telling points, one being that we commonly treat farming and nature as quite separate. He attributes this separation to a larger and longer-standing attitude that humans are separate from nature. This in turn he attributes to fundamentalist religious thinking, though I think it has a longer and broader pedigree than that. Descartes famously proposed that we are abstract thinkers who happen to be trapped in perishable bodies. This picked up Plato’s notion of perfect, abstract ideal forms, compared to which real horses and real people are imperfect, an idea that flowed into Christianity.
However, and tellingly, the real separation probably goes back to the beginning of agriculture. This led to a battle with wild nature to sustain food crops, whereas previously wild nature was the provider.
Thus people who are trying to move away from monocultural agriculture are to some degree trying to move beyond a 10,000-year-old system. Examples are permaculture and Wes Jackson’s work to develop a polycultural farming system based on the perennials of the highly productive prairies of pre-European North America.
An important manifestation of the dualist mindset that Ben identifies is the tendency to assume that a healthy “natural” landscape is one based on natives and excluding exotics. This leads, for example, to some city Landcare groups replacing exotics with natives that are unproductive, while depending on food from monocultures hundreds of kilometers away.
Another manifestation is the tendency to think of agricultural landscapes as isolated from “nature”, and to be surprised or irked when native species intrude, to be labelled “weeds” and “pests”.
The reality of course is that a separation of agricultural landscape (without natives) and “natural” landscape (without exotics, or people) is ecologically unstable. Each will intrude on the other, as we commonly experience. Not uncommonly this results in degradation of both, in the sense that each loses vigour. For example a widespread result of a couple of centuries of trying to impose European farming methods in Australia is degradation of soil quality, erosion and incision of streams and the loss of water availability.
On the other hand, some exotics can be used to good effect to combat these problems, a controversial example being the role of willows in stabilising incised streams.
On the “nature” side, pre-1788 there was evidently no distinction between “productive” and “natural” landscape, so should there be a distinction now? Could “natural” reserves be productive?
Perhaps a better way to pose that question is to think of a heterogeneous landscape, at the farm level as well as the catchment or regional level. Monocultures tend to be unstable and to degrade the land, and agriculture that more closely resembles the diverse, polycultural and heterogeneous wild ecologies can be more more productive overall and more stable, in other words more “sustainable”.
One of my favourite thinkers and writers is the American “agrarian” Wendell Berry. He argues for farmers being firmly anchored socially in a local community, and for each farm and community to be firmly anchored in its particular landscape. This requires farms and their communities to be stable enough to allow the accumulation of generations-worth of intimate knowledge of their landscape and themselves. He says he regards farming as “a high and difficult art”. This attitude begins, at least, to echo the ecological-spiritual pre-1788 culture in Australia.
From the ecological perspective, perhaps the less-directly cultivated parts of a heterogeneous landscape can be nevertheless an integrated part of a managed ecosystem. They might be predominantly native, but their precise makeup will need to be the result of searching out more enduring forms of landscape management.
One of Ben’s main concerns is that “official” sources of information and funding are still predominantly of the dualist mentality, one result being that attempts to use exotics as part of a diverse sustainable farm landscape are not supported.
I confess that Ben’s arguments have challenged me a bit, but that’s good, as it stimulates useful debate. So here are some issues that his ideas raise for me.
First, it’s hard to see how we could integrate a managed landscape so much that it was close to ecological equilibrium. The very idea of managing implies not just letting it run its wild way. The pre-1788 landscape was certainly out of equilibrium, as was shown by its rapid reversion after the management system was destroyed. So there might always still be “weeds” and “pests”. So where would be a balance, between less separation of “human” and “wild”? That would probably be a matter of perennial learning and continuing adjustment and evolution.
A related issue is that the extinctions and introduced species have further disturbed ecological equilibrium. The consequences will resonate for generations and possibly millennia, with many more extinctions of natives as they are out-competed by the exotics that thrive. Do we want that? Or is it reasonable to try to eliminate some of the exotics to reduce the extinctions and disruptions?
Do we only eat exotics? Or can we start to use bush tucker? It’s a great shame that CSIRO, which used to be a wide-ranging scientific organisation, has been constrained to serve short-term vested interests, like GM, monoculture and coal. If they had
started a few decades ago to develop and cultivate native foods we could be well along now. The sooner we start this the better. It’s a bit much to expect individual farmers to do this, as it’s so different from traditional methods, so it’s just the sort of job CSIRO could be doing. But as native foods are developed, it would be good to see progressive farmers taking them on.
We are actually starting to eat kangaroo a bit, which is excellent, because cattle and sheep are very damaging, especially in our extensive semi-arid zones. It seems to me we could move far in this direction if we set about it. There would be some obvious advantages for the health of the landscape, as local species are less disruptive. Our “nature reserves” could be both native and productive as well.
And do we leave no room for “wild” nature? Do we want to manage the entire continent, and the entire planet. We have the power to, for better or worse, but do we want to? Or are we willing to let the four-billion-year evolution of life continue at least partly on its own?
Finally, a fundamental point that I think Ben appreciates. I have used the term “ecological equilibrium”, but really there is no such thing. Ecologies are far from equilibrium systems, and they have dynamical balances, and such systems always fluctuate, and occasionally undergo a large shift to another “state” where a new rough balance applies.
I think Ben’s ideas are stimulating. We need to be thinking about and debating these big questions.