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Waste not, water not

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 14 August 2018


The ABC seems to be hammering me, and all other viewers and listeners, about its 'war on waste'. The last episode was Tuesday night. Why we need one, or at least why I need one, isn't immediately obvious. Where I live the municipal services have closed our tips and aren't opening new ones, there are no free plastic bags with which to line my under-bench garbage bin, and green-bin options for garden waste seem to be coming in. Other areas already have them. It all looks pretty good to me, if recycling and obvious waste is what concerns you.

But the ABC seems to want a war on plastic straws as well. I don't use them, so I won't be part of the war, or perhaps I defeated the straws in an earlier battle. A great global fuss is occurring about plastic straws, but Australia is hardly one of the countries whose streams (or some of them at least) are absolutely clogged with plastic materials. They are indeed gothic shots, the ones you see on television. If we wanted to deal with plastic straws as a global issue, then it would seem best to help Indonesia and other poorer countries in Asia work out ways of clearing their rivers. It's their problem, really, not ours, but we could help. But Australia? Where is the problem? It's certainly not an obvious one. Ah, but it's coming, the ABC says, if we go on as we are doing. Maybe.


Waste and dealing with it must start on the domestic front. I don't think there's anything special about what my wife and I do. We were brought up to be conservers of what had been made. Use it again. Reuse till it collapses, that was the family motto. My Dad straightened nails, I remember, during the war. The two of us now have a worm farm for all fruit and vegetable peelings, and would have a compost area if we had more space in our small backyard. We put little garbage for collection. I'm sure I've made these points in earlier essays.

There has been a sea-change over the last half-century in what humanity produces. Foods, materials, clothing, consumer products, vehicles, aeroplanes - you name it, there's more about than there ever was. And what do we do with the bits no one wants? Volvo and Mercedes Benz, and maybe some other car companies, are pointing to the almost completely recyclable car by 2020. There is a vast aerodrome in Arizona filled with un-needed airliners. They won't rot in the sun. We in Australia still have car dumps all over the place, but in time they will disappear (as many already have done). A year or so ago we in Canberra were invited to put old TVs and computers into a scrap area, and we did, in their thousands. Other councils have clean-up days a couple of times a year where you can put out at the roadside anything you have no use for. And there are places like Revolve (a Canberra outlet) where you can leave stuff that others might acquire for a dollar or two, and reuse. Sally and Vinny take and resell a vast amount of clothing and objets d'art that, because of the passage of time and human beings, are now just objects, not objets. But somebody might like them. A lot gets reused right now. Australia is good at it.

I'm probably labouring the point. But I see no need for the ABC's war on waste. Australia may not lead the world in recycling and dealing with the downside of the productive boom, but there's no sign it is a laggard. Which make me wonder why the ABC thinks it is. And why is the public broadcaster, of all entities, employing its diminishing coin in enjoining us to enter the war on waste as private soldiers? I tried to find out from the website, but I didn't get very far. But you will see there a lot of people who have enjoyed telling one another how they helped.

And as always, when you get into a new program of some kind, there is the hard question: how will we know whether or not we've been successful? When will waste run up the white flag, and surrender? I'll be gentle in my closing thought on this one. There may well be a large number of people who just throw things away, making messes for others to clean up. And maybe it's useful for somebody, at some time, to remind people that in our highly urban environment doing something constructive about where all the wrapping paper, boxes, bottles and the like will finish up is a useful corrective. Municipally, as far as I can see, we're on top of that. I really doubt that ABC listeners and viewers are the proper target audience, that's all. If they are, then things are crook in Tallarook!

Water Not

Eastern Australia is going through a longish drought. It's not the worst we've had, but it hasn't finished. In any case, measuring the incidence of drought is a game anyone can play. Two hundred or so years of rainfall data in the Murray-Darling basin tell us that droughts and floods follow one another with some regularity, droughts in 1900, 1940 and 2000, all of them about ten years long, with some humungous floods afterwards. In fact, droughts often end with a hell of a lot of rain.


My interest here is the effort being made by another media source, this time Channel 9, to involve us all in saving farmers from the drought. Pictures tell more than words and much more at the emotional level; the images are pretty bad. My own recent driving in our part of the world showed a barren, grey and eaten-out pastoral landscape. It was not at all pretty, but I've seen it like that before. Channel 9 seemed to me to be picturing what I would call the rural version of 'little Aussie battlers'. There is some truth in it, but there is a most significant difference.

Farming is a business. Yes, it's very often a family business, with everyone in the family lending a hand. They love the farm, and it's the only life they know. But it's a business for all that. It has to be well-run, and well-planned. How is farmer X dealing with the high probability that one of the coming years will be a disaster? Even fifty years ago it was becoming axiomatic that another income stream (the wife's being a school-teacher, nurse, or public servant) took a huge burden off the farming side of things.

In the 1960s and 1970s the politics of farming and farmers was my central intellectual occupation. I wrote books, chapters and articles about it, and one of the themes that left its mark was what I called 'countrymindedness'. Here farmers were the true backbone of Australian society. What they did was good and virtuous. They did the real work. In a way, everything that everyone else did hung off the prior productivity of the agricultural and pastoral community. It wasn't really accurate, but it was appealing both in the countryside and in the city. In those years most Australians in the cities had rellies in the country, or had even grown up on farms. The history of Australia's countryside for the last 150 years is one of continual population decline. Our farms no longer support large numbers of sons and daughters. Land-holdings have grown and grown in size. You need capital in big quantities to make a real living out of wheat and sheep. And quality, rather than quantity, is the new benchmark. The successes are fantastic, and the quality of some of our produce now is wonderful.

But for all the successes there are the many failures, and droughts and floods bring them out, remorselessly. Some of the people involved have been hoping, not planning. In any seven-year period, in wheat/sheep country, and more so in sheep/cattle country, you are going to have some kind of catastrophe: no income, severe stock losses, degraded land, the works. A couple of those years may be really quite good, and you make a lot of money. Every twenty years ago conditions may be so good you make enormous money. It'll be fluke, wonderful monsoonal rain falling ad falling and staying around in central Australia, fattening everything. What do you do with the money?

In most of inland Australia you cannot store water in quantity. You need hills and mountains to do that. Much of our agricultural land is marginal. Here you really depend on the right amount of rain at the right time. Without it, nothing happens. The economic history of rural Australia has been well-researched, and well-written too. Yet we seem to go on with the notion that it's little Aussie battlers facing the dreaded adversary of drought (flood, fire, put in your own option). I won't buy it, and though the Prime Minister, at least in public, has to buy it, what his or any other government offers is always a simple money package, well described by the sufferers as 'too little, too late'.

The real solution, that a lot of the farming shouldn't take place in these areas at all, cannot be mentioned.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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