Poet and author Mark O’Connor has written another important analysis of Australia’s ecological eclipse at the hands of the growth cult. While the continent is obviously unique in its botanical character, the similarities with Canada that O’Connor reveals in his description of the evolution of the growth ethic are simply astounding.
Like Canada, “Australia was and still is, even though much trashed and abused, a treasure house of biodiversity,” towards which the people have a somewhat schizophrenic attitude. On the one hand, “Australians are genuinely proud of their wildlife … many people assign a very high, almost religious value to conserving nature”, as evidenced by their tolerance of crocodiles which make it impossible to swim in their tropical waters. Australia also has 10.7 per cent of its land incorporated in a strategic network of parks.
Yet O’Connor writes, “Attitudes to Australia’s biodiversity remain mixed”. It may be inspirational to watch them in flight but “people don’t appreciate kangaroos eating their crops”. Sadly Australian experience shows that democracy is not good at preserving other species - they don’t vote. “(There is) a theme that runs through Australia’s ecological history: the clash between the desire to protect biodiversity versus the need of an ever-growing human population to make a quid from it.”
He had this warning about false confidence in the natural park system:
These parks have supposedly been created in perpetuity; yet there is a risk that further shifts in ideology may leave a future government free to revoke national parks. (It would by then be able to plead the housing and resource needs of a much expanded population, plus its need of export earnings from lands that would be otherwise going to waste.) Developers constantly agitate for governments to become less sluggish in releasing more land.
O’Connor reminds readers that Australia’s ecology was dynamic. While “we might prefer to praise the Aborigines’ achievement in living sustainably with the land for millennia, and contrast this with the damage eight generations of European lifestyle have wrought,” Aboriginal hunters had already modified ecology by the fire regime they imposed before Europeans arrived.
Paul Watson asserts that Aborigines killed off 85 per cent of the continent’s megafauna before the British hit Botany Bay, an assertion that has been contested. Nevertheless, Watson is one of the very few Canadians not given to romantic illusions about indigenous stewardship of precious resources.
The foundation of Australia’s current ecological crisis, and that of Canada’s, is their false self-perception as vast empty lands desperately in need of more people. Two bloated bulimics who look in the mirror and see themselves as Twiggy with lots of room to grow. The myth is best captured by Australia’s national anthem Advance Australia Fair when it says “For those who’ve come across the seas. We’ve boundless plains to share.”
But as O’Connor notes, Australia has only 6 per cent of its land mass proven as arable. For Canada it is 7 per cent with soils marginal by European standards. As for wheat, because Australia provides 20 per cent of the world’s wheat imports, feeding 40 million people, the “baby boomers” argue that Australia could feed a far higher resident population than its current 21 million. But they forget that much of that foreign exchange is needed to pay for the fuel and nitrate fertiliser used for production, and also that soil loss, acidification, and climate change will diminish yields: “Every tonne of wheat still costs some 50 tonnes of eroded soil”, O’Connor observes.
Even so, with the drought tolerant wheat grown in fertile soils in a good year Australia produces less wheat than France, and in a bad year sometimes less than Britain; all at the cost of “fascinating” bio-regions being cleared and species eliminated.
So if the big empty land in fact suffers from a limited carrying capacity, if food self-sufficiency is a myth, if biodiversity is taking a beating, why then does Australia seem in a frenzy to add to its numbers? Canada could be asked the same question. Who drives growth? Cui bono? Who benefits?
The answer might be found in research done by the Australian Greens which revealed that the governing Labor Party of New South Wales received $8.78 million in 1998-99 from property developers, while the opposition Coalition Parties received $6.35 million. Not surprising then that Sydney’s councils have been instructed to accommodate an extra 1.1 million people (an extra 24 per cent) in 25 years so that Australia offers the paradox of a huge country with urban housing prices comparable to New York or London, where land prices double in a decade and its 1.5 per cent population growth is higher than Indonesia’s and indeed many Third World countries.
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