by Mark O’Connor
As published in The Edinburgh Review, no. 128, February 2008 -- (A special edition about Australia).
There are few things more pleasing than the contemplation of order and useful arrangement arising gradually out of tumult and confusion; and perhaps this satisfaction cannot anywhere be more fully enjoyed than where settlement of civilised people is fixing itself upon a newly discovered or savage coast. The wild appearance of the land entirely untouched by cultivation, the close and perplexed growing of trees… are the first objects that present themselves… But by degrees large spaces are opened, plans are formed, lines marked, and a prospect at least of future regularity is clearly discerned.
(Captain Arthur Phillip, first Governor of New South Wales, describing the new colony, 1789)
When you, gentlemen, first got your estates your ground was well furnished with beautiful shrubs. You ignorantly set the murderous hoe and grubbing axe to work to destroy them, and the ground that had been full of luxurious verdure was laid bare and desolate… No person of taste who has seen the rocks which border the shores of Port Jackson [Sydney Harbour], and the beautiful trees, flowering shrubs, rock lilies and other plants growing there indigenous in masses and groups, unequalled by the art of man, must but admire them. No rocky scene in England or Scotland can be compared with it.
's first professional gardener, 1830s) Australia
Since 1788 the ecology of
’s dry continent has been profoundly affected by the verbal filters through which Anglo-Celtic or English-speaking Australians perceive it. Australia
Many of the terms they found for
’s strangeness, like ‘Down Under’ and ‘ Australia ’, were unhelpful, even silly. The best term was already in use for one of Topsy-turvy Land ’s earlier conquests: ‘the new world’. Britain North America was the new world only in the sense that it was like the old world, being a sort of second Europe, with (thanks to a recent land-bridge across the Bering Straits) much the same trees and animals.
was genuinely new. It was hard for folk from the UK to understand its climates (forever alternating between droughts and floods), its rivers that flowed inland and vanished, its eucalypt forests that seemed immemorial yet might burn to a cinder tomorrow, and its lack of topsoil (or of the rich glacial and volcanic sub-soils of other continents). Australia
Above all, in its extraordinary biology,
seemed like a second and separate creation. Gone were the placental mammals of other continents (apart from a few rodents that had been rafted there, one of which was evolving into a sort of otter, plus of course the recently introduced dingo). In their place was a whole suite of marsupial grazers, predators, and arboreal animals. Plus platypus and echidna, two diverse survivors from an unknown era when mammals laid eggs. A symbol of Australia ’s otherness might be the bounding two-legged gait of the kangaroo, so different from that of European ungulates, yet clearly and robustly efficient. Australia
Sir Joseph Banks, a passionate botanist, paid £10,000 towards (and to be part of) Lieutenant James Cook’s expedition that explored eastern
. It was Banks who some years later (in 1786) helped make sure that Australia ’s next colony would be in Britain , and at one of his two landing spots. He misinformed HMG that the climate of Australia Botany Bay ( region) was ‘similar to that about Sydney in the south of Toulouse ’– though he knew that the real parallels in latitude were with France North Africa. Intending colonists were fed a similar line. To this day Australia’s first and most populous state is known as New South Wales (hereafter NSW) rather than, say, New Morocco or New North Africa.
The botanic riches of
probably lay behind Banks’s recommendation. The lure of finding new species glittered like gold in people’s imagination then – a point well made in David Attenborough’s Amazing Rare Things exhibition, which was recently on show at the Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh. And Banks had a special interest in ‘economic botany’. He understood, perhaps better than anyone else in Australia , how much the wealth and power (and the populations) of the empire depended on certain new plants that Columbus and others had found in the Britain . Beans, pumpkins, maize, pawpaw, potato, tomato, tobacco, peanuts, sweet potato, were already important; but Banks might have guessed the future rise of crops like capsicum, avocado, custard apple, passionfruit, rubber, blueberry, cranberry, asimina (‘North American pawpaw’), tomatillo, pepino, cherimoya, quinoa, yacon, oca, pecan, naranjillo, hickory, casimiroa, feijoa, tamarillo, casana, cocona, cocoa, and more. Once enough new-world crops had been added to the existing old-world range, there was a profitable crop for almost any region, from the acid peats of Americas to the alkaline soils of coral atolls. The sweet potato, for instance, had led to the clearing and farming of much of upland Ireland Asia.
Banks might have been even more excited had he known the truth (which perhaps he glimpsed at
Botany Bay). is not, as the maps of his day suggested, a mere extension of Australia SE Asia, but a drifting relict of Gondwanaland, and the world’s most long-isolated habitable continent. Radically new crops and herds might come from such a place. Moreover, the separation between and the much larger continent of Australia Antarctica is quite recent. (One side of the rift valley produced is still visible in the spectacular cliffs of the Great Australian Bight.) If the innumerable lost species of Antarctica, which was not always polar, are to be found other than as fossils under Antarctic ice, it will be in . What riches might Australia ’s vastness, once properly explored, bring Australia and the world? Britain
The explorers did meet plenty of promising species.
had mound-building ‘scrub-hens’, which consort readily with domestic hens and lay excellent eggs a third their own body-weight. It had edible wombats and emus, almost begging to be domesticated—in vain. It had geese, ducks, and ‘plains turkeys’. It had over a hundred edible fruits, including a collection of wild citrus and rubus as promising as any continent’s. One of its so-called ‘native grapes’ Tetrastigma nitens was already comparable in size and flavor with the best domesticated grapes. It had delicious chestnut-sized bunya nuts, and heavy-bearing large-seeded acacias from whose seeds Aborigines made high-protein flour. It had wild grasses, unrelated to those of the fertile crescent, whose grains had long been a staple for desert Aborigines. Even its spectacular semi-edible ‘kangaroo apple’ Solanum aviculare was at least as promising a candidate for domestication as the original tomato, being productive, perennial and frost-hardy to boot. Australia
The hungry settlers did eagerly sample ‘native fruits’, yet found most of them disappointing. In
Asia monkeys and apes offer rapid dispersal for seeds, and trees respond by evolving large sweet fruits to tempt them. Most Australian trees relied on birds, and produced small acrid or sour fruits. Above all, the Aborigines who had occupied for about 60,000 years (far longer than Australia Europe has been habitable) seem not to have cultivated trees or developed varieties. It was as if the apple, instead of being steadily improved for millennia, had been left in the same semi-edible state as the rowan. By contrast in , a part of the Australasian plate that became a separate island only about nine thousand years ago, agricultural societies did develop, and numerous crops were found. Sugarcane, taro, bananas and breadfruit may well have originated there. New Guinea
Yet in every case the early settlers, faced with the problem of quickly establishing themselves in a harsh environment, preferred to use or adapt already familiar crops. They simply could not afford the many generations of selective breeding (even if they had fully understood the process) to turn wild plants and animals into reliable crops or flocks. The same globalisation that had brought the British to
was making it impossible for the world to adopt new crops, unless a wild fruit or grain was already comparable to what centuries or millennia of improvement had achieved with domestic species. (One need only consider the ongoing neglect of so many of the ‘lost crops of the Incas’, and of two of the world’s finest fruits, cherimoya and feijoa.) Only one Australian species, the macadamia, a sub-tropical nut as good as domesticated hazels, proved competitive without much alteration. (Yet there too the early settlers were out of luck; they did not realize it was safe to eat.) Australia
Botany Bay’ became a receiver rather than a donor of new species. The settlers embarked on an orgy of often disastrous introductions: starlings, sparrows, mynahs, rabbits, foxes, trout, water buffalos, camels, prickly-pear cactus, scotch thistles (introduced by a sentimental Scot); and later two bizarrely misconceived ‘biological controls’, gambusia fish (‘mosquito fish’) and giant toads; plus the unintended stowaways: rats, mice, garden snails, and weeds galore… as well, of course, as more useful crops and herds. (One of the latest arrivals, courtesy of container shipping, has been the European wasp.) The settlers did adapt many of their new crops to Australian conditions. Famously, they replaced the ’s lanky wheats and stubby sheep with short drought-adapted wheats and long-legged merino sheep. UK
It was only in recent decades that CSIRO (
’s premium scientific research body) set out to help some Australian species ‘catch up’. They started with the desert quandong, a relative of sandalwood, that boasts an appealing cherry-sized fruit as well as an almond-sized edible nut. There were a series of steps: identifying economic potential, solving the problems of propagation by grafting or tissue culture, then having knowledgeable botanists collect cuttings or seed from promising trees across the species’s wide range, and finally growing a large orchard of such trees from which one or more cultivars might be selected. The ‘winning’ specimen promptly became the world’s most amputated tree, supplying twigs for hundreds of grafts. Quandong orchards are now in fashion, and many thousands of the new cultivar have been planted. Australia
There have been similar successes since, most recently with the Australian desert lime Citrus glauca, both a good fruit and a promising rootstock for other citruses in dry or alkaline regions. There are many others – details can be found by googling ‘bush food’ – yet most of the new crops are as yet largely of ‘boutique’ or gourmet interest.
To return to the pioneers. Those who would soon call themselves the Australians found they now owned the partly unwanted and sometimes resented heritage of a stunning biological richness but one that was not much suited to feed or clothe humans.
Creating wealth and comfort involved introducing domestic animals, from honey bees (originally absent) to cattle, and destroying native ecologies. So began the age of introduced animals. Humans would in the long run prove the most damaging of these, with their endlessly expanding demands for consumer goods, food, and export earnings. Yet stunning damage was quickly done by three other early arrivals: fox, cat, and rabbit.
Early explorers reported dozens of small native marsupials, both herbivores and carnivores, that they saw every day: wallabies, bandicoots, potoroos, bettongs, bilbies, quolls, numbats, ‘hopping mice’, etc. Within decades almost all had vanished – down the throats of introduced cats and foxes. (The selfishness of those who introduced foxes to mainland Australia, so that gentlemen could have a more familiar animal to hunt, has been surpassed only by that of those as yet unknown persons who recently introduced foxes to the island state of Tasmania – perhaps as a revenge on conservationists. It is also difficult to praise the Tasmanian politicians who did not then make fox eradication a priority.)
Yet predators, however efficient, need their prey animals, and can rarely wipe them out unless there is some other source of food. That source was the introduced rabbit, which bred unstoppably, having left behind its own diseases and parasites. The damage done by rabbit plagues is famous. What we may never know is how many plant species they wiped out as they ate the country bare. This went on till the 1950s when CSIRO introduced a lethal strain of myxomatosis, and then around 2000, as rabbits began to develop immunity to ‘myxo’, calicivirus. The rabbit plagues had a faint silver lining. Nobody starved in
during the Depression – though many got awfully tired of eating rabbit! CSIRO had another great success when it introduced the cactoblastis insect and saved much of Australia from vanishing under prickly-pear. Australia
With fox and cat, it seems it was the combination of two unfamiliar predators that drove most species to extinction. In
, in parts of the central deserts where foxes cannot find drinking water, and in parts of northern Tasmania that foxes seem to find too hot, many more small marsupial species survive. Elsewhere the small species vanished and were soon forgotten, but the big kangaroos that live in the open often proliferated as the land was cleared. Thousands of small dams, intended for cattle, allowed kangaroos to live permanently in the semi-arid regions and to exterminate many plants during the droughts. Kangaroo and emu became the iconic Australian animals, that hold up the Australian coat of arms. The ‘real’ mammal ecology of Australia had largely perished by 1900. Or perhaps it had vanished thousands of years earlier, when the diverse marsupial megafauna ‘vanished’ (as some prefer to say – though there is little doubt that in Australia, as on some other continents, hunting by early humans was a major cause). The ‘giant’ kangaroos of today, a little under two metres tall, are really the babies of the kangaroo set. Australia
The ecology European settlers encountered was already much modified, not just by the omnipresent Aboriginal hunters but by the fire regime they imposed. In
one should not ask ‘Has this forest been burned?’ but ‘When was it last burned?’ The dominant eucalypts (‘gum trees’) are what Californians have recently learned to call ‘fire weeds’. Their inflammable oils create hot fires that destroy other species (and often themselves). Phoenixes of the tree world, their seeds usually germinate only after fire, and from their own ashes. The giant Eucalyptus regnans, the world’s tallest flowering plants, reach sequoia-like heights in just 300 years. Yet they are dead of old age by around 400 years. 500 years without a major fire might see them extinct. But these are plants of semi-rainforests. For smaller eucalypts growing in drier areas, fire may be needed each hundred years, or fifty, or even ten! Australia
The Aborigines obliged. In several regions they constantly set fire to the country as they travelled across it. They did this partly so they could always tell where the rest of a foraging band were, and partly to maintain habitats or to ‘clean up the country’ – to make it passable and to bring on green grass for the animals they hunted. (They also used fire as a hunting tool.) As a result, some researchers believe, dangerous large fires were rare, and much of the country was a varied mosaic of patches in different stages of recovery from relatively cool blazes. (The archaeologist Rhys Jones dubbed this ‘firestick farming’.) Early explorers often described the resulting effect as ‘park like’, and imagined that it was natural. The numerous small marsupial species they found were the survivors that had adapted to these conditions.
Today those who seek to preserve
’s forests indefinitely from logging and woodchipping are often accused of folly. ‘If you don’t harvest it, it will burn sooner or later, and the carbon will go into the atmosphere.’ (Not that the loggers show much willingness to leave the ‘old-growth’ rainforests alone.) Fire-fighting techniques keep improving, but there is such a thing as ‘fire weather’, especially during Australia ’s el niño years, when forest fires can be unstoppable. Australia
I have taken a detour through ‘economic botany’ in part as preparation for a theme that runs through
’s ecological history: the clash between the desire to protect biodiversity versus the need of an ever-growing ever-richer human population to make a quid from it. Australians are genuinely proud of their wildlife. They protect it, and allow only a handful of its species to be shot. (As a magistrate’s son, I remember how often during the 1970s recent immigrants from Europe were up before the beak for assuming they could go out and shoot the birds ‘for sport’.) Most graziers like having a few kangaroos on their property, and urban gardeners tolerate the nightly rampages and unwelcome prunings of the omnipresent brushtail possum – a protected animal. The extreme case of tolerance is found in tropical Australia where the once-endangered crocodile is now totally protected. As a result, its numbers have built up enormously, making it impossible for humans to swim in most inland or ocean waters – no small sacrifice to make in the hot tropics! Australia
Another success story has been the ‘high country’ of the
Australian Alps (aka ) south of Snowy Mountains . This was treated as a communal stock reserve to which vast herds and flocks were driven in time of drought, with devastating results. The practice was stopped in NSW in the 1950s, but only much more slowly repressed on the southern side (in Sydney ). Banjo Victoria ’s iconic poem ‘The Man from Paterson ’ (though it is not in fact set in the mountains) is regularly trotted out as proof that Australians will lose their heritage if the ‘mountain cattlemen’ are not allowed to graze the mountains. Snowy River
Yet habitats and species are vanishing. Bandicoots for instance. The mammal extinctions that occurred a hundred years ago in southern
are now, for reasons not entirely understood, but including no doubt the relentless spread of the imported toads, sweeping into the north. Tim Flannery has suggested that National Parks may no longer be the answer for conserving small mammals. Yet the vast effort by conservationists that has seen 10.7% of Australia incorporated into a strategic network of protected areas will not be wasted. Under predicted climate-change some parks will become, at particular times, more important refugia for particular species, but all will be useful. The rangers have a fascinating project, called Alps to Atherton, to create linking corridors of natural vegetation, with the help of private landowners, between Australia ’s East-coast national parks, all the way from north to south, as a precaution against global warming. Australia
’s biodiversity remain mixed. A group of giant kangaroos drifting across the landscape at speed, in a kind of effortless low-level pogo-ing flight, is an inspirational sight. But not if they are crushing, or eating, the crops by which you hope to make a living. Australia
Many people in
assign a very high, almost religious value, to conserving ‘nature’. Yet contrary views of the natural world as alien and threatening (for instance in the stories and news-dramas of children lost in the bush) are also widespread. So too is a developer’s or industrialist’s view of the natural world as a mere source of raw materials that is ‘wasted’ if not exploited. For instance the cosmologist Paul Davies has complained of Australia ’s Top End rivers ‘going to waste’ in that they are allowed to flow into the ocean, instead of being reticulated into a network of cities. (He forgot that the lucrative prawn-fishing industry would collapse if the wet-season floods no longer reached the sea.) A given individual may also hold different and incompatible attitudes on different occasions. Australia
To describe the literary side of this story—the progression from authors like Henry Lawson who saw the landscape as monotonous bush (‘nothing to relieve the eye’) to those like Judith Wright who respected its complexity—would take another essay; but it is clear that a foreign tradition of appreciating landscape can be almost as lethal as none at all. Many who destroyed
’s wonders were not immune to beauty, yet might have said like the poet Elizabeth Riddell ‘But I was thinking of something English, out of a book’. Australia
Can the fauna be made useful? Native-meat enthusiasts argue Australians should ‘farm kangaroos’ since they do far less damage per beast than hard-hooved cattle. But they also produce far less meat. ‘Bush-tucker for a population of 21 million is nothing but a wet-dream (unfortunately), just like the delusion of continuous economic growth,’ environmentalist Sheila Newman wrote recently. Kangaroo meat is lean, muscular and tasty, but often comes encumbered by mylar-like bands of connective membrane called ‘silvering’ – very time-consuming to remove. Some people argue that farming the surviving kangaroo species would guarantee their survival by making them an economic asset. Others counter-argue that the population dynamics are too poorly understood. To commercialise kangaroos would leave their long-term survival at the mercy of those greedy for short-term jobs and profit.
Perhaps the most ingenious conservation initiative was that pioneered by John Walmsley, a maverick who kept foxes as pets to discover what kind of fencing could reliably keep them out. He stocked large cat-proof and fox-proof sanctuaries, like Warrawong in
, with whatever rare and delicate small marsupial species could still be acquired from islands or zoos. It turns out that, thus protected, many of them breed like rabbits. There is talk of asking the army to shoot out cats and foxes from certain peninsulas, which could then be fenced off, and thus gradually ‘take South Australia back from the fox’—as is already being done on the Australia in Peron Peninsula . Western Australia
It might all have been so much better if these predators had been kept out, and if, as Thomas Shepherd wished, wide borders of native plants had been left around each paddock, in a beautiful mosaic. But the first settlers, who were almost as many months from home-base as a settlement on Mars might be today, needed to grow food quickly or die. Decent old Arthur Phillip’s duller eighteenth century belief in ‘improving’ the landscape prevailed. (Let us hope he enjoyed his retirement to
after he, as Les Murray puts it, ‘recoiled into his century’!) Indeed land was often granted to settlers on condition they improved it, by destroying the native trees and vegetation. Bath
This obsession with clearing the land may have reflected an unconscious need to eradicate traces of a prior Aboriginal ownership. Not that early settlers had the sort of bad conscience about having seized the communal lands of Aborigines that modern Australians have. The ‘right’ of a stronger country to seize a weaker one by force majeure was still widely accepted. The governors chose to believe that Aborigines did not own their tribal lands (which in any case, delivered to European eyes little of value) because they moved across them like ‘vagrants’ rather than settling like European property-holders to cultivate and ‘improve’.
Today 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. Yet in pre-1788 Australia you could not have found metal, pottery, a horse, a wheel, a post office (or a literate person), an obstetrician… or bought an ice-cream, an apple, shoes, a piece of cloth, a pair of glasses, or a scone. The British were not wrong to think they were bringing a vastly more complex material culture, or that the indigenes, if they lost their communal lands, might still enjoy much improved material circumstances. (Even today, many economists justify giving Russia’s communal lands and assets to private entrepreneurs on grounds that these will then be more productively used, and that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’.) But the British fatally failed to understand the cultural circumstances that might prevent a stone-age pre-capitalist society from embracing such opportunities. Or the drift of many Aboriginal groups, once they lost their land, into the communal use of alcohol, a drug previously unknown in mainland
. (Alcohol, when a whole community adopts it, turns out to be not just a debilitating drug but a de-inhibitory one: it removes necessary restraints on anti-social impulses. The Australian media are currently convulsed with revelations about appalling levels of child sexual abuse in several Aboriginal communities.) Australia
The British also made an ecological blunder, this time with creatures too small for them to see or even be fully aware of: human disease organisms. Should they have realized that, if they settled in
, then measles, chickenpox, influenza, etc., and even the common cold, would destroy Aboriginal societies and cultures? They had already seen epidemics follow ships’ visits to Pacific islands. Yet Sydney was not an island; and elsewhere in mainland Australia Asia (and Africa) it was the Europeans rather than the ‘natives’ who died like flies upon first contact. The early governors did not know that ’s thinly populated interior impeded the spread of epidemic diseases from Australia Asia, and had left the southern Aboriginal populations with perhaps no more immunity than dwellers on remote islands. To their credit, they set up a quarantine station at North Head near (its macabre history is now a tourist attraction) and largely succeeded in keeping the major epidemic diseases out of Sydney . But minor diseases, not considered justification to prevent a ship landing, often proved just as deadly to the Aborigines. Australia
It became widely assumed that Aborigines were ‘a dying race’—a view that is sometimes dismissed today as ‘wishful thinking’ or prejudice, or even as partly a cover for illegal shootings. Perhaps it might also be described as ignorance of Darwinian selection. When three-quarters of a population dies within a few decades, largely it would seem of diseases for which no remedy was known, one would naturally anticipate extinction. But the survivors may be those with more disease-resistant genes. In the south, a rapid intermixture of European genes probably speeded the process, and today Aborigines in the south (less often in northern
) often look racially more European or Asian than Aboriginal. It is now widely accepted that Aboriginality should often be defined in cultural-and-ancestral rather than narrowly racial terms. Australia
My suggestion that European genes provided resistance to disease is based on a priori likelihood. This is one of many areas where speculation has to be cautious because evidence is short, and scholarly and public passions are easily inflamed. The suspicion, or certainty, that some landholders shot the local Aborigines complicates any debate on Aborigines and disease. As does the fact that the common cold was undoubtedly a major killer; and many British people then, and even now, have an unshakeable belief (enshrined even in the disease's common name) that infection with rhinoviruses is caused by exposure, getting damp, or ‘catching a chill’. Hence it is hard to know what to make of the recurrent statements that Aboriginal people died from ‘exposure’ or ‘damp unhealthy conditions’ or ‘inflammation of the brain’, and other primitive medical diagnoses. However the ANU’s Professor Barry Smith cites one clear case where measles, which seems not to have become firmly established in
before 1850, subsequently wiped out half the survivors of one Aboriginal tribe in a few months. Australia
Once the colony could feed itself fairly well, the next problem was to find an export to pay for its existence. In later days it was said that ‘
rode on the sheep’s back’; and indeed wool was an excellent non-perishable export, one that could be carried by slow un-refrigerated ships. It could also be produced from infertile land with a small labor force. But in the colony’s first decades it was not the sheep’s but the seal’s back it rode upon. Skins stripped from the hapless Australian seals made excellent winter coats for folk back in the Australia ; and then as now, most customers did not inquire into the ecological cost of a bargain. That industry was soon exhausted. UK
Then in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was the rise of wheat. Wheat had been grown in
since 1788, but it was labor-intensive, and phosphate-hungry. Yields tended to drop as soil fertility was exhausted. To counter this, much ingenuity was applied in creating better varieties for Australian conditions, and better crop rotations. Stump-jump plows and imported fertilizers helped. Then came the new fuel-driven machines. These made it possible to clear vast acreages, and then to mechanically sow and harvest them. Trains and steamships were now available to get wheat to markets around the world. Australia
’ (1864-1941), author of Paterson ’s unofficial national anthem Waltzing Matilda, hymned this re-born crop in his ‘Song of the Wheat’ (1914), ending: Australia
Princes and Potentates and Czars,
They travel in regal state,
But old King Wheat has a thousand cars
For his trip to the water-gate;
And his thousand steamships breast the tide
And plough thro’ the wind and sleet
To the lands where the teeming millions bide
That say: ‘Thank God for Wheat!’
They travel in regal state,
But old King Wheat has a thousand cars
For his trip to the water-gate;
And his thousand steamships breast the tide
And plough thro’ the wind and sleet
To the lands where the teeming millions bide
That say: ‘Thank God for Wheat!’
To this day, some councils and local progress associations give out illustrated books in which each line of
’s short poem takes up a page. Paterson
Imported ‘superphosphate’ improved
’s infertile soils, but in time many soils have turned dangerously acidic. Wheat’s fuel-bill includes nitrate fertilisers (made directly from fossil fuels and incorporating as much energy as explosives), plus fuel for machines and remote-area transport. So far from being solar-powered, Australia ’s wheat industry works on a trade-off between the price of bulk wheat and the rising price of fossil fuels. Today, despite its largish acreage and its specialisation in this crop, Australia produces only about 20 million tonnes a year, which is roughly 5% of the world’s wheat --though its willingness to export means Australia provides more like 20% of a hungry world’s wheat imports. Those who claim Australia could feed a far higher resident population forget the need to export much of the wheat to pay for fuel and fertiliser. Australia
Flood, fire and cyclone in successive motion
Complete the work the pioneers began
Of shifting all the soil into the ocean.
Even the patriotic poem known to all schoolchildren, Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’ (1906):
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of drought and flooding rains
could not turn a blind eye to
The stark white ring-barked forests,
All tragic to the moon
As well, much of
’s farmland lies upon the bed of an ancient sea. Farming (and especially clearing) raises the water table and brings the salt to the surface. Paradoxically this dry continent suffers from rising salty water. Australia
Two maps drawn by Chris Watson, a CSIRO soil scientist, reveal much about
’s dependence on wheat. The first is a map of the areas of Australia that have good and poor soils for agriculture. As expected, only a few areas are classed as good. The second is a map of those regions with sufficient and reliable rainfall. Again, the good areas are relatively small. But what is really striking is the map produced by superimposing the two. Areas that have both deep fertile soils and reliable rainfall (like the area around Robertson in NSW where Babe was filmed) are not small, but tiny. Australia
So how does
manage to feed its own 21 million humans, and export enough calories for about another 40 million? The answer of course, is wheat. Not wheat grown on fertile soils with good rainfall, but drought-tolerant wheats grown as a winter-and-spring crop in areas where the soil is just middling, and the rainfall, during winter-spring, is usually enough – except in an el niño year. Even so, the yields per hectare are low-ish. Thanks to wheat (and refrigerated meat) Australia is a food-exporting country; yet in a good year it still grows less wheat than Australia – and in a bad year it sometimes grows less than France ! A small return, perhaps, for so many square kilometres of fascinating bioregions cleared, and species locally eliminated or totally extinct. (In Britain as elsewhere, it is often the more arid lands, like the famous wildflower belt near Australia , that have the highest diversity of plant species. Nature, like humans, is at her most ingenious when stressed.) Perth
Even more destructive than wheat, within
’s relatively tiny rainforested regions (originally about 2 per cent of the land area), has been sugarcane – another economic success and ecological disaster. But for this profitable crop, most of Australia ’s lowland rainforest would still be standing. Instead only fragments survive. Fertiliser run-off from the canefields now threatens the Australia Great Barrier Reef.
A certain distinction may be drawn between the north and the south of
. In the south swamps and wetlands were ruthlessly drained, and birds that might damage crops like brolgas (the famous giant dancing crane) and magpie geese were exterminated. The north was less suitable for agriculture, not so much because it had less water as because the water was concentrated in a few months. It is hard to farm flat land that is under water for three months of the year, and dry as a cracked scone for six. Australia
Thus there emerged a sort of de facto agreement to leave the north more natural.
Northern Australia’s savannahs and seasonal wetlands are one of the globe’s biological hot-spots. Some sacrifices have been made to keep them. For instance, the giant dam was intended to grow rice, but it soon became clear that this would mean exterminating most of the region’s migratory flocks of magpie geese (a major tourist attraction). This had been done down south, but was considered politically unsafe; so less profitable crops were grown instead. Ord River
Yet even this agreement to spare the north is precarious. Climate change is expected to shift the rain to the north. Already the conservative senator Bill Heffernan has begun agitating for Australian farmers to re-pioneer the north. Predictably, some see him as a man of vision. However the uneven spread of rain through the year may defeat his faith in the wet north.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Australia’s press and much of its public life was dominated by the ‘boomers’, economic progressives who believed Australia must and would rapidly acquire a population (and hence a status) comparable to that of the USA, or Europe. As late as 1978 I can remember seeing a large poster outside an Australian embassy in which the outline of
was superimposed upon most of Australia Europe, with the relative populations written beneath. The dry salt lakes of ’s desert centre had been painted a vibrant blue, and the ephemeral inland rivers were thickly depicted. The message was clear: Come to Empty Australia. Australia
The great geographer Griffith Taylor, when professor at
in the 1920s, had a blunt answer for such nonsense. He produced maps with Sydney University turned upside down and superimposed on Saharan and sub-Saharan Australia Africa – a better fit in area, and in rainfall and soil-fertility. He also told the boomers, correctly, that Australia’s population at the end of the twentieth century would be not 100 million, as they predicted, but around 20 million; and that the ‘boundaries of settlement’ would not change much. Indeed, if anything, farms are retreating.
But the debate on
’s population-carrying capacity is far older. Captain Cook, not normally a careless observer, remarked that on the coastal plain between Australia Botany Bay ( ) and the then-impassable barrier of the Sydney Blue Mountains there was pasture for more sheep and cattle than could ever be brought there. Yet 20 years after settlement the herds were almost starving, and the authorities were desperately seeking a path through the Blue Mountains. Once the settlers broke through into the interior, the old pattern of complacency, followed by disappointment and ecological collapse was often played out again, region by region. Exaggerated estimates of carrying capacity were always the first step.
Fire followed by rain can produce a flush of seeming fertility, but
’s ancient stable continental plate lacks fertile volcanic soils – and mountains to bring down the rain. Its most important river, the Australia , sometimes fails to reach the coast, and carries less water in a year than the Murray in a day. ‘They call her a young country, but they lie,’ wrote the poet A.D. Hope: Mississippi
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry. . . .
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands.
Only 6 per cent of the vast land mass has proved arable. Above all,
is intensely affected by el niño years which bring savage droughts. Australia
has played an odd role in the story of world population. Its generosity in taking in people from the ends of the earth, from countries that had no possible claim upon Australia , and even from World War Two enemy countries like Australia and Italy , is a remarkable piece of unselfishness by a nation state. Many a ‘ten pound Pom’ escaped from squalid conditions to a happier life in Australia, as did millions from the wrecked cities of post-WWII Europe, and more recently from Asia. Yet the total numbers that Germany could take in were globally insignificant. Worldwide, Australia probably did more harm than good, by spreading the myth that the globe could not have a population problem, since there was still a huge ‘empty continent’ wanting more people. ‘Land without people for people without land’, as a Catholic bishops’ conference fervently proclaimed. (In reality, Australia’s agricultural frontiers had effectively closed by the time the colonies achieved federation and independence from Britain – simultaneously – in 1901.) Australia
Australia has long been a talking-point in the debate between proponents of endless ‘growth’ and Malthusian ‘limiters’ – because it was one of the two new continents that Britain seized, thus invalidating or postponing Malthus’s prediction that his motherland would soon run out of farmland for its expanding population.
Today the first group are typically economists who believe humanity can never run out of ‘resources’ because the ‘market’ will always find either cheaper means of supply or substitutes. Or else science will produce a breakthrough. (There is no faith in scientific miracles like a growth-economist’s faith!) Their opponents are typically biological scientists who see limits to the numbers of humans – and the lifestyles – that a finite planet can sustain.
The well-planned South Australian colony saw a major battle between ninteteenth century boomers and authorities. As the colony expanded into the increasingly arid lands north of
, its surveyer, George W. Goyder, drew careful maps of the rainfall and established a line (corresponding to 30 cm annual rainfall) beyond which land would not be offered for farming. The boomers were indignant at ‘Goyder’s Line’. How could Adelaide grow into a second Australia if there was room for only a few hundred farmers in their state! Lines on the map were arbitrary, they thundered, and a barrier to human Industry. God would provide. Besides, it was a well known geographic fact that ‘rain follows the plow’. USA
Following unusually wet seasons in the 1870s, settlers broke down the authorities’ resistance and surged across Goyder’s Line. A nobly-planned town, significantly named Farina, was constructed, as well as a railway line to carry off the anticipated huge harvests of grain – which never came. Today Farina is a sand-covered ruin.
But boomers never learn, especially when there are fortunes to be made on the mere expectation of growth. In the 1960s the giant state of
had a policy of clearing a million acres of ‘scrub’ a year. (In Western Australia and NSW, even rainforest was called ‘scrub’.) Advice that much of this land was species-rich, yet marginal for agriculture and likely to be destroyed by salinity, was ignored, with disastrous results. Queensland
The myth of the empty land was even written into the national anthem ‘Advance Australia Fair’ (adopted in the 1970s) which includes the words (against proudly swelling music)
For those who've come across the seas:
We've boundless plains to share.
– a nice ideal, but a lie. Immigrants since the 1890s have not, in general, found farmland in
, and have paid through the nose even for urban land. Australia
’s parliament has been one of the last preserves of the global warming skeptics and the ‘nuclear will fix everything’ illusionists. Local and even national media are fed a depressing spiral of puff pieces about how we are desperately short of skilled and willing workers – alternating with pieces on how we are desperately short of major projects to provide employment. The intended solution is of course an endless cycle (or spiral) of increasing population and increasing construction. If only politicians could give Australia the construction industry its population needs, rather than the population its construction industry would like! Australia
Yet in the C20th, as environmental awareness grew, the boomers did not have it all their own way. In a single year, 1966, three environmental classics appeared: Jock Marshall’s The Great Extermination: A Guide to Anglo-Australian Cupidity, Wickedness and Waste; Vincent Serventy’s A Continent in Danger; and Alan Moorehead’s The Fatal Impact: The Invasion of the South Pacific 1767-1840.
Three years later the polymath farmer and environmental historian Eric Rolls produced They All Ran Wild, The Story of Pests on the Land in
. Another of his books, A Million Wild Acres, showed how complicated might be the series of ecological changes, even since 1788, that had created a particular bioregion. Australia
Three decades later the boomers came up against one of the few politicians brave enough to oppose them. Bob Carr was Premier of NSW from 1995 till he retired in 2005, the longest continuous term served by any NSW Premier. A brilliant and bookish man (he once stepped down for two weeks to attend Sydney Writers’ Festival) he overcame the media’s refusal to discuss the issue by himself writing and publishing full-page articles in the Sydney Morning Herald. In one he wrote:
First, we need a democratic consensus on population. We mustn't fall for the line that more is better. A strong, proud and confident
doesn't mean a bigger Australia . Australia
Those who advocate an Australian population of fifty million aren't talking about the verdant stretches of cultivated land in the central tablelands or the western plains, let alone in the continental interior. They aren't talking about inland cities, conjured into being by benevolent developers and the Burley Griffins of our time. They are talking about the urbanisation of the eastern coast from north Queensland to Melbourne: ever more housing estates, more shopping malls and multiplexes, more freeways and petrol stations where now we have rivers and forests, unpolluted beaches and open country, and in a few areas (such as Daintree or Nadgee) coastal wilderness as old as the continent itself.
But Carr was one of a kind: a skilled politician, erudite, environmentally aware, and largely immune to the unsubtle tactics of the growth lobby, since he had no real rivals inside or outside his party. Even so, his refusal to commit to the infrastructure required to turn
into megalopolis bred voter resentment. The other state politicians have all caved in to the growth lobby, though some feebly protest. Former Olympic gold medal runner Ron Clarke, now the mayor of the Gold Coast (south of Sydney ) where rainforests turn into shopping malls overnight, has long been pro-development. Yet he recently mused in print: Brisbane
Where will the water come from for an extra 500,000 people on the [
SE Queensland] Coast, and more than a million in the southeast?
How about the roads, public transport, our open spaces, parks and gardens and our beaches – will they support a doubling of our population in such a relatively short time?
Not only farmers but politicians who ignore
’s realities sometimes perish. The formidable conservative prime minister John Winston Howard, who ruled from 1996 to 2007, discounted talk of global warming, refused to sign the Kyoto agreement saying it would ‘only destroy Australian jobs’, encouraged uranium exports, talked of going nuclear, provided ‘baby bonuses’ and committed the Dry Continent to relentless population growth. It was his misfortune to fight the November 2007 election at the end of a disastrous drought, with cities running out of water, housing prices (fed by exceptional population growth) going through the roof, and with every week bringing fresh evidence that global warming is a reality. He boasted of a booming economy (based partly on his policy of selling off the continent’s minerals and natural gas as fast as possible). No previous Prime Minister had ever lost an election in unambiguously buoyant economic times. Yet Howard was tossed out of office, even losing his own seat. The new Labor government of Kevin Rudd has had the good luck (like the Hawke Labor government in 1983) to come to office just as a crippling drought ended. Australia
In the recent words of Ross Garnaut, Professor of Economics at the
, ‘ Australian National University is likely to be damaged more than any other developed country by climate change. Our climate is dry and highly variable already, and this will be exacerbated with climate change, with the effect on agriculture and water supplies being particularly pronounced.’ Australia
It is a seeming paradox that such a huge country should have urban housing prices comparable to
or New York . Yet land area is irrelevant. Australians no longer found new cities; and granted the huge distances between major cities, the squeeze is on for inner urban land in London , Melbourne , Sydney , Brisbane , and Perth . Throw in out-of-control population growth (proceeding currently at 1.5 per cent a year, higher than Canberra next door, or than many other third world countries) and the result, under present economic settings, is sky- high land prices, which sometimes double in a decade. Indonesia
These are always called ‘housing prices’ in the Australian media, but in fact the costs of constructing a given structure are steadily falling. It is the price of land that is out of control. Each major influx of population kicks the housing market into another boom-cycle. Apart from moving any given greenhouse target further out of reach, the high cost of housing creates a huge invisible impost that swells the price of everything in
: goods, services, and labor. The huge unearned incomes to be made from real estate speculation in turn drive the population-growth lobby, in a python-like vicious circle that is the despair of environmentalists. State governments profit hugely from ‘stamp duty’ on housing sales, but then find themselves forced to provide housing for an increasing number of homeless people. Australia
In the last days of 2006 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that
’s councils had been instructed to accommodate an extra 1.1 million people within 25 years. Each was given a quota: Sydney
Densely populated Strathfield Municipal Council is expected to accommodate 9000 new dwellings – double what it considers possible …A spokesman for Bankstown Council said it had been set a total of 26,000 extra residences, which ‘would have to be built entirely in place of existing homes.’
The task of maintaining any of
’s once-impressive environmental amenities against such pressures can well be imagined. Sydney
Rapid population growth has long been recognised as central, also, to
’s ecological troubles. Those who resent suggestions that human beings can ever be a ‘problem’ sometimes claim that ‘the real problem’ is not human numbers but levels of consumption. But there is at present neither realistic likelihood nor intention of reducing per capita consumption. On the contrary, Labor and conservative governments compete to assure the public that their economic skills will deliver ever higher affluence. Australia
The alternatives to capping population are basically two: to reduce per capita consumption, and/or to devise more efficient use of scarce resources. Recent modeling of
’s economy by Barney Foran and David Crane suggests that even if these proposed alternatives could be implemented, they might prove not merely inadequate, but self-defeating. This is because of various ‘rebound’ effects. For instance, the Jevons paradox, well-known to economists, means that when manufacturers find more efficient ways to turn a scarce resource into a product, this lowers their production costs, increases their turnover, and often leads to a ‘rebound’ in demand for the resource, which gets used up even faster. (Something similar applies, in reverse, to greenhouse gases.) Or consider another ‘rebound’: if preaching by environmentalists ever leads to the population as a whole buying less consumer goods, this provokes the relevant industries to shift money from their production to their advertising budgets, until they have restored or even heightened the public’s need to purchase. Australia
Jevons’s economic paradox produces moral paradoxes. For instance, if the public were to heed politicians’ calls for each individual to cultivate a
approach to conserving water, the entirely predictable upshot is that politicians would be emboldened to keep recklessly pouring more houses, shops, and people into each coastal river’s catchment area. Thus, in the long run the scarcity of urban water (not to mention the state of the environment) would be much worse than if people had used, or even if they had deliberately wasted, as much water as they could. (There is a surprisingly good case to be made that, in urban Battle-of-Britain , if you love your neighbor you ought to ‘waste’ water.) Australia
A November 2007 UN report classes Australians as even worse than Americans as greenhouse polluters, in fact the world’s worst, producing about 26 tonnes of CO2 per person per year.
Hence a series of
’s official State of the Environment reports have insisted that it is essential also to curb population growth. Tim Flannery, who dealt with such issues in The Future Eaters, once estimated that Australia in the long term might be able to support only million people – as against some 21 million now, and an expected 31 million as early as 2050. (The Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics agrees that production may fall steeply.) Australia
Growth economists tend to pooh-pooh claims that
needs to feed its own people, and argue that ‘The market will cope. You can always buy food.’ They may be right. Australia’s large area may not produce as much food as some believe, but it possesses mineral deposits (including natural gas) that took all earth’s history to create but which it is current government policy to dig up and sell off rapidly. The resulting export earnings should allow Australia to import whatever food it needs – at least in the short term. Whether this is a good thing for the world is another matter. Australia
The most recent book on
’s ecology, On Borrowed Time: Australia's Environmental Crisis and What We Must Do About It (CSIRO/ Penguin, 2007, by David Lindenmayer, Professor of Ecology and Conservation Science at the Australia ) makes some strong points. Like another professor of science, Ian Lowe, who heads the main conservation body, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), Lindenmayer blames ‘the three O’s: overpopulation, overdevelopment, and overconsumption.’ He is appalled by the recent decision to dam the Australian National University in Mary River , home of the rare ‘living fossil’, the lungfish, so as to provide water for Queensland ’s ever-expanding human population. Queensland , he says, ‘leads the world in recent mammal extinctions… It is one of the most species-rich places on the planet. It also has one of the worst records of species loss and decline in the world. Almost no Australian resource-based industries can be considered to be ecologically sustainable.’ Australia
Yet he sees hope in paying farmers to reward them for ‘better managing their properties for public good outcomes such as revegetation, increased biodiversity conservation and improved water quality’. Indeed one major state,
, over the last 15 years has turned its agriculture from greenhouse negative to greenhouse positive, largely through encouraging private owners to re-afforest their properties. In this, governments have been helped by better public attitudes (e.g. the ‘Landcare’ movement among farmers) and by long-overdue laws that restrict clearing of native vegetation. Victoria
No great attempt has yet been made to make immigrants –or the Australian-born –aware that residing in
is a privilege that should involve an obligation to conserve its unique species. The Howard government in 2007 introduced a citizenship test, similar to that in the Australia , whereby applicants for Australian citizenship must demonstrate some basic knowledge of the country’s traditions and political system. Donald Bradman is on the list of items they are meant to know; but inexcusably they are not required to know about the arid nature of the continent on whose fringes they are living. USA
Indeed many immigrants know only the well-watered coastal cities, and don’t understand what the problem is about bringing in their mates. Some even believe such concern is just a cover for ‘racism’. In Australia, as in the USA, the word ‘racism’ is rarely used in its strict sense, as referring to theories of genetic racial superiority, but has become a loose pejorative term for any kind of ethnic or national chauvinism that is disapproved. Thus when Australian Greeks came to the support of tennis player Marcus Baghdatis in January 2008 by endorsing his claim that
’s occupation of part of Turkey is illegal, Australian Turkish community leaders promptly denounced such views as ‘racism’. In many cases claims of racism become a way of crying wolf about a factitious issue while not attending to real environmental ones. Cyprus
Mind you, a tendency to cling to the coastal rim is equally visible among older Australians. James McAuley once described
Bone-dry itself, with water all around.
Yet as a wheel that's driven in the ruts,
It has a wet rim where the people clot
Like mud; and though they praise the inner spaces,
When asked to go themselves, they'd rather not.
It has a wet rim where the people clot
Like mud; and though they praise the inner spaces,
When asked to go themselves, they'd rather not.
–James McAuley, ‘The True Discovery of
Fifty or even thirty years ago, most urban Australians were still connected to the ‘bush’. They remembered ‘the old place’ where they used to farm, or they regularly visited relatives who were still ‘living on the land’. Time, and a huge influx of immigrants, has changed that. Today the cities seem, to those in them, to levitate free of the landmass whose resources they drain. Most of the young live on a planet called Cityworld. When they travel it is mostly by plane, direct to another city somewhere on the globe. In the myths of economists, money is a crop that exists and multiplies in its own world; while to many teenagers the plight of
’s soils and species seems just one of the millions of pages to be skimmed over on the Internet. Australia
To follow the recent history of
’s environment and population requires a diversion into Australian politics. The Whitlam Labor government of 1972–75 reacted to the first global Oil Shock by seeking to limit immigration and population growth and to borrow heavily to buy back Australia ’s energy resources for self-sufficiency. It was brought down by fierce criticism from business lobbies and media barons, and was the last Labor government to be broadly critical of business or to think that ideals could matter more than economic growth. The incoming conservative government of Malcolm Fraser promoted indefinite growth, ignored energy constraints, and was made to seem prescient by the easing of the oil shortage. Australia
All recent governments have favored the flogging off (to
, China , the Japan , etc) of USA ’s (very limited) oil and gas fields as fast as they are discovered. This lets the current government boast of running a surplus, being ‘sound economic managers’, etc. Democratic leaders are ephemerids who know they are unlikely to be around in ten years time, unlike dictators who sometimes make better energy choices because they expect to be around for ever. Sadly, Australian experience shows that democracy is not good at preserving other species – they don’t vote. It is also very bad at conserving resources. Australia
The issue of population returned to haunt the Hawke–Keating Labor governments of 1983–1996. By now
was clearly a plutocratic democracy. The voters got their Hobson’s choice every three years in free and fair elections between two major parties that jostled for the middle ground (as defined by the media); but both parties competed for and depended upon ‘electoral donations’ from big money, and saw themselves increasingly as servants of the business-growth lobbies. The battle to ban media monopolies was effectively abandoned, with both parties selling out their own laws in hope of short-term political favors from media barons. Australia
Hawke’s dilemma was that Labor was using the conservation vote to cling to power, yet he dared not offend the growth lobby. The Australian Democrats, who often held the balance in the Senate, had long had a policy of zero net migration, and conservationists were demanding something similar from Labor. Instead Labor had pushed immigration ever higher, till only
among the world’s nations aimed for a comparable per capita immigration rate, and polls showed the public was unhappy. In one poll in 1991, 73 per cent of voters said that the numbers coming in were ‘too many’ and, in 1996, 71 per cent were still of this opinion. Only 4 per cent thought immigration was too low. Clearly even Canada ’s large immigrant communities thought the point of sanity had been passed, though immigrationists strove to give the opposite impression. Australia
In this context the
of Science stepped in. In a major public statement in 1994 it advocated ensuring that Australia’s population did not pass 23 million, that sex-education and birth-control be encouraged (‘every baby a wanted baby’), and that net immigration should stay in what it considered the responsible range. This meant below 50,000 a year (about a half of what it was in most of the Hawke–Keating period and about a quarter of the 190,000 to which the Howard government would push it by 2007, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics). Aware that Hawke and Keating had traded on the public’s tendency to confuse immigrants and refugees, the Academy pointed out that a much expanded refugee program could fit comfortably within the 50,000 cap. Similar enquiries and reports by Labor’s erudite Party president Barry Jones, and by CSIRO, came to much the same conclusion. Australian Academy
Instead the Labor Party worked out a way to update the old pioneering view that
was an empty country. Granted there was no spare farmland, Labor’s spin-doctors removed reference to specific population outcomes and to what exactly all these extra people would do (apart from making our economy ‘vibrant’). More importantly, it was now Australia ’s manifest destiny to build not so much a ‘great’ nation as a diverse one. Australia was to become a sort of one-country United Nations, in which a representative blend of the world’s races and ethnicities would co-inhabit, miraculously unhomogenised yet on terms of the highest mutual respect, in a rich and democratic society. This was not a million miles from where Australia was already moving to; but as promoted by Australia ’s immigrationists it involved making Australia a permanent country of immigration, long after its colonial and pioneering periods should have been over. In effect, the case for preserving the continent’s biological biodiversity was to be trumped by a new human-chauvinist emphasis on the ‘obligation’ to preserve human cultural and racial diversity: that is, to continually import and sustain these forms of human difference. Australia
Thus instead of being ashamed that we have lost so many of our marsupial species, today many idealistic Australians seem more ashamed that they do not have a flourishing Inuit or Bantu community in their particular city. No one should object to a policy of loving the cultures you have imported, yet why it should be
’s duty to turn itself into a representative sample of the cultures of the earth is never explained. Instead, there are constant shouts that any reduction of immigration will lead to us tumbling back into an abyss of ‘racism’ and ‘boring monoculturalism’. Australia
Hawke’s and Keating’s spin doctors also took advantage of the Anglo-Celtic guilt over having immigrated upon the Aboriginal tribes without their permission and having then (in many cases) violently displaced them. Somehow this became a further reason why high immigration, so long as it was no longer Anglo-Celtic, was essential—as if inviting in the rest of the world to share the theft would legitimize it. Conservationists who protested now risked being slurred as white-supremacists or accused of defending
’s colonial past. Australia
An explicit policy of de-Anglifying or multiculturalising
’s population might itself have seemed ‘racist’. However the Labor Party, ventriloquizing in part through a series of Multicultural Studies centres it had set up, attached to the guilt about Aborigines a further guilt: that non-UK or non-European nationalities had once been wrongly excluded. (In fact the British government had been under no strict obligation to open up to any other nations a colony which was, for it, the fruit of much toil and expense, as well as of its hard-fought naval victories.) Labor’s prize exhibit, however, was the former ‘white Australia ’ immigration policy. In reality this policy had been in its day largely a Labor/Trade Union one, insisted on as the price of Federation, because they believed the rich would otherwise import ‘cheap labor’ and destroy ‘the rights of working men’. Spin doctors reworked the story to make it seem a rightwing policy, proof of a ‘fascist’ past. After all, by then there were not too many voters old enough to remember how strongly most Australians back in the 1930s had opposed the real Fascists and Nazis of their time. Australia
By raising the spectre of a pervasive Australian ‘fascism’, Labor was able to defy the electorate’s will and disguise a rightwing policy of relentless growth as leftwing ‘tolerance’. They also hoped, wrongly it now seems, that unsettling the immigrant communities, by keeping up a constant brou-ha-ha about the ‘racism’ they supposedly faced, would win Labor ‘the ethnic vote’—or at least would de-rail the strong tendency for those who move to Australia for economic advantage to mark their success in small business by turning conservative.
Academics set to work scouring the records of the First Fleet for non-Anglo names to prove that
‘has always been multicultural’, and therefore had a duty to remain ‘a nation of immigrants’. (For a while no conference on Australian Studies seemed complete without such a paper. Since sailors have always been an international lot, and many convicts came from the melting pot of Australia , they found plenty of non-English names.) Somehow the discovery that the invaders had been a multi-national or multicultural lot only helped prove that increased multi-national immigration was the way to atone for their deeds! London
A country that had long been considered to have one of the most strongly-marked national characters of any English-speaking nation began to be told that it had no national identity –or only one created by a mosaic of (often post-WWII) immigrant populations. Keating’s anti-nationalist rhetoric (he once described
as ‘the arse-end of the universe’) played well to many richer and tertiary-educated Australians, since (as Orwell once remarked) the rich have always been less nationalistic than the poor. Some of the tertiary educated, too, enjoyed feeling superior to the more nation-bound and monolingual world of the less educated. Early soundings reassured the spin-doctors that this line (borrowed from Australia North America) might win ‘the ethnic vote’, and widespread intellectual support, without getting up the noses of too many voters. But the numerous ‘true believers’ Labor helped to create became more and more extreme. One group of academics, for instance, declared that the very word ‘Australians’ should be seen as misleading and bordering on racism. Yet Australian identity proved harder to deconstruct than Canadian. Some ethnic leaders, while concerned to preserve cultural diversity, regarded perpetual multiculturalism as a pipe-dream, disliked their communities being used in anti-nationalist rhetoric, and shed few tears for Keating’s demise. (In fact the ‘ethnic lobby’ that was so vocal under Labor vanished with suspicious speed.) Late in his term Keating saw the danger, and (without dropping his tone of moral superiority) declared a ‘One Australia’ policy; but voters by then had ceased to listen. One of his most lasting political legacies was the bloated immigration quota he bequeathed to the Howard government. Howard was subsequently able to gain brownie points from the electorate by letting immigration dip for a while, before lifting it still higher.
, whose citizens have automatic access to New Zealand , showed signs of joining Australia ’s and Australia ’s high-immigration folie a deux. Since the population flow is overwhelmingly from Canada to New Zealand , Australia ’s immigration policy is not truly independent; it has become a major source of New Zealand ’s population growth. Much like the Aborigines, Maoris protested in vain that high immigration contravened the bi-lateral treaty of Waitangi they had signed with the British, and was turning them into just another minority among their nation’s minorities. Australia
Conservationists, despite some big wins on particular issues, were out-maneuvered in the longer term. They had needed to increase the public’s nascent sense of guilt at the ruthlessness with which humans in
were invading the living space of all other species. Instead their opponents trumped them by creating a much stronger sense of guilt that Australians had not been generous enough in inviting in all other nationalities and in parceling out their ‘boundless plains’—to fellow humans. Hence conservation lost momentum, slipped subtly out of fashion. At a crucial moment Hawke and Keating bought the movement’s silence on population by setting up some major (and much-needed) national parks. 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’. in fact developers constantly agitate for governments to become less ‘sluggish’ in ‘releasing more land’.) Labor’s utter allegiance to growth became clear when in 1992 Keating’s Environment Minster, Ros Kelly, apologized at the U.N.’s Rio Conference for Australia’s being underpopulated relative to such ‘successful’ regions as Singapore and Hong Kong. (Did she imagine that Australia and Singapore Hong Kong supply their own water, let alone food?)
Even more cunning was shown by the incoming conservative prime minister John Howard in 1996. Though some might doubt if Howard was, as he presented himself, truly a patriotic defender of the average Aussie, Hawke and Keating had striven to present him as an ultra-nationalist ‘racist’. Howard realised he could blind his critics by seeming to live up to this image. Each time his government pushed immigration still higher, he would monster a small group of asylum-seekers, or criticise an ethnic minority, and watch his critics lash themselves blind with moral indignation. Typical of the innumerate commentators was the
Times journalist who scathingly dubbed Howard’s Minister for Immigration, who had introduced the highest immigration in half a century, ‘the Minister for No Immigration’. More astute was the experienced immigration-journalist John Masanauskas, who noted that Howard had managed to double immigration while only being criticised for reducing it. He also noted that though traffic, cost of land, and ‘water, or lack of it’ was on everyone’s lips, ‘yet a major contributing factor for all this is rarely mentioned, let alone properly discussed’. He also noted that there was as yet no sign of change from the incoming Rudd government. Canberra
Although Australia’s population had been growing at a staggering 1.3 to 1.5 per cent a year, and half of it from natural increase, Howard’s government ran a scare campaign about Australia’s ‘falling population’ and even introduced a A$4,000 baby bonus – not to improve the care of the new born, but specifically to bribe couples to have more babies. Biologists were not impressed. Recently one of them, Professor Barry Walters, demanded that, since the new Labor government has now signed
, the baby-bonus be replaced by a A$40,000 ‘carbon tax’ on all babies after the second. Kyoto
The plight of
’s cities, of home buyers, and of native species, all worsened notably on Howard’s watch. Yet public opposition to current immigration policies dropped significantly because Howard never mentioned that he had doubled net immigration, and talked as if he were moving the other way. (Ironically, according to ABC TV’s 7.30 Report, one crucial factor in Howard’s losing his own seat was its large Chinese community. Though its rapid growth had been favored by his high-immigration policies, it had believed his rhetoric rather than his deeds! Aesop might have made a fable out of that.) Many voters were confused by the baby bonus and assumed there must be a problem with low population ‘otherwise why would the government be shelling out to solve it?’ –which may have been the point of the policy. Australia
Most of the commercial media were onside, and editorialised in favor of this ‘wise’ policy. (For them, doubling population in an area is like a farmer being able to double his or her area under crop). The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) rather servilely followed the government’s and business-leaders’ line, though its investigative TV program Four Corners ran a 45-minute documentary by Ticky Fullerton on how the Howard government had suppressed a recent CSIRO Report warning against population growth.
Most political journalists proved to be incapable of distinguishing between a falling population, a possible future downturn in population size, and a projected future downturn in the rate of increase of population growth. (Roughly the equivalent of a racing journalist not knowing the difference between distance, speed, and acceleration. The same tricks are regularly used even in
and England to raise concern about an imaginary fall in population.) Moralising commentators persistently confused immigrants with refugees. (Only a fraction of Scotland ’s immigrants are refugees; rather, the emphasis is on cherry-picking the rich and skilled; and Australia is accused of poaching third-world doctors more selfishly than any other country.) Australia
Disinformation was also fed to overseas allies. Philippe Legrain’s book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them (Little Brown Book Group,
, 2006), which was heavily promoted in UK , contains a rich harvest of muddled statistics. These include the claim that Australia’s population is 19 million, that its net immigration is only 90,000 a year (see p. 9), that births are not keeping pace with deaths (p. 108, in fact they are twice deaths), that immigration has been slashed by the Howard government (see p. 53), and so on. (A visit to http://www.population.org.au/ or to the Australian Bureau of Statistics website http://www.abs.gov.au/ could have spared him such errors.) Australia
The real masters of the population game are revealed in a recent article by the sociologists Katharine Betts and Michael Gilding, ‘The Growth Lobby and
’s Immigration Policy’. This documents how a group of businessfolk (including developers and sellers of white-goods) set out to defeat the scientists’ warnings against population growth. As their summary puts it, ‘Immigration boosts Australia ’s population growth. A growth lobby concentrated among interests based in housing, land development and construction profits from this and actively lobbies for it.’ They remark: Australia
The current [immigration] program is now large. But for some lobbyists the numbers will never be large enough. For example, in October 2006 Harry Triguboff, property developer and one of
’s 10 richest people, called for a ‘massive boost to immigration’, aimed towards a population of 150 million by 2050. To this end, he argued that national parks should make way for housing saying: ‘If people want to see trees, they can go to Katoomba, there are plenty of trees there.’ Australia
The authors comment:
Paul Keating labelled all NSW Planning Ministers the ‘mayor for Triguboff’. Keating added that the ‘wall of money coming at a minister is phenomenal because, as you know, the industry is into political donations which in my opinion should be outlawed’.
’s economy ‘is based on housing, which is based on a growing population’. ‘Growth begets growth’ and cities ‘must grow or die’. Research by the Australian Greens Party revealed that from 1998–1999 to the present the NSW Labor Party has received $8.78 million from developers and the NSW Coalition parties (which are in opposition) $6.35 million. Australia
The public record shows that growth lobbyists organised a pyramid structure to promote pro-immigration views, that they founded the Australian Population Institute, and that, at least in NSW, they gave large amounts of money to political parties. The interview data confirm that some of
’s richest people are fervent supporters of immigration. The public record also shows that, no matter how high federal politicians push the numbers, some lobbyists will press for more. All of this may mean that, rather than having growth for growth’s sake, Australia has growth for the growth lobby’s sake. Australia
As they imply, Triguboff is far from unusual in his class. (One remembers Philip Larkins’s poem ‘Going, going’.) In 2001 for instance the Labor Mayor of Brisbane, Jim Soorley, told the press
needed to triple its population in 20 years. What is saddest is not that such views are held by powerful citizens, but that the media, and especially the growth-obsessed Murdoch media, rarely permit any opposition or criticism. Ian Lowe, when asked why he ‘never mentions population’ in his public statements as President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, replied that he mentions it all the time, and the media selectively edit it out. Australia
has never outgrown its pioneering and colonial obsession with ‘filling the country with people’ is that it shares the Anglo-Celtic property system which privileges private speculation in land. Vast fortunes have been made from this system by those who got sufficiently far ahead of the game to buy blocks of land, which they themselves did not need, on the edges of cities. Australia
By contrast, the nation’s capital, Canberra, was built on a French-style system, with the government resuming land from farmers at fair but moderate prices, auctioning it as cheaply as possible, and using the profit it couldn’t help making to provide roads, schools, services and an elegantly planned layout.
remains one of the world’s most livable cities, and (for the developers who control much of Canberra ’s politics) an embarrassing proof that there is a better way. Australia
Most of the great fortunes in
either have been made from or have since been stored in (and augmented via) real estate speculation. The recent conservative treasurer Costello wanted the working class taught to multiply their money through shares and real estate, so they would not need pensions. Yet real estate gains are the ultimate form of Ponzi finance. The additional population you need to bring in, to buy up the houses of the existing population at prices sufficiently inflated to fund their retirements (in presumably some remote location where land is still cheap) means that the existing population come to have a much smaller share of the country they once owned. In Australian terms, such policies are a form of ‘selling off the farm’. Australia
Now, however, peak oil and the mooted demise of the private motorcar is questioning
’s pleasant suburban sprawl. Indeed, all over urban Australia there is confusion between those conservationists who are trying to preserve the suburbs from encroaching high-rise and those more radical (or pessimistic) conservationists who believe that only much denser cities (plus public transport) will cope with future fuel shortages. Canberra
Some even doubt there will be fuel to grow the food for
’s big cities, and to transport it there across the vast spaces that separate some of the state capitals. At least if the cities could be consolidated, some think, they could be treated as giant feeding lots to which the food could be transported. Others tout de-centralisation as the cure to future shortages; but they are spitting into the wind. Australians seem interested only in moving to the big cities. The country, especially the wheat country, is worked by vast machines and skeletal labor forces. Most rural Australians moved to the cities two or three generations ago, turning Australia into the most urbanised of the world’s nations (other than city-states like Australia ). Singapore
One option that is fast disappearing is that of growing food in your own backyard, using the once-generous tap-water supplies. Rising populations, often dependent for their water on short coastal rivers, have begun to dry up the reservoirs. Politicians predictably have blamed the recent draconian water-restrictions on ‘an unprecedented drought.’ In fact what is unprecedented is not the low rainfall but the swollen populations now dependent on those dams and rivers. Throughout the 2006-2007 drought, Federal and State governments went on pouring about a thousand new settlers a month into each of Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. Hence the next drought is likely to prove even more ‘unprecedented’.
Environmentalists have begun to discuss whether civil disobedience against water restrictions may be one way to bring home to some politicians that the age of endless growth is over. Meanwhile
’s gardens have begun to wilt, and there is a thriving business in replacing lawns with xeriscapes. Yet just at the time of writing (December 2007) the planet has begun to flip from the el niño to la niña cycle, and rains have begun again on the east coast. Australia
Early signs are that the incoming Labor government headed by Kevin Rudd is prepared to tackle greenhouse issues provided it can keep the economy booming. ‘We were elected as economic conservatives, and we will govern as economic conservatives,’ was one of his first public statements. His Environment Minister is Peter Garrett, a somewhat conservative conservationist who, when he chaired the Australian Conservation Foundation, earned the ire of poet and doyenne of Australian conservationists Judith Wright for refusing to speak out on
’s population growth. In one tersely-worded missive she stated the figures and concluded tartly: ‘Anyone who can’t do the sums, stand up.’ Australia
is like a cruise liner whose captain is required to sail in the direction chosen by a deck-steward – whose priority is to keep the sun shining on the deckchairs in the saloon section, so that their occupants will order more drinks. In the words of NSW environmentalist Gordon Hocking Australia
Economic growth and population growth are the two main drivers of rising greenhouse gas emissions but neither is up for discussion or negotiation. As long as we stick with an economic system that needs to perpetually grow we will remain trapped on the road to ecological and climate disaster.
On balance, the evidence is, as yet, that
can’t do its sums. Australia
--Mark O’Connor December 2007
I have tried to refer mainly to materials available on line.
re ‘No rocky scene in
or England can be compared with it.’See http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/AHR/archive/Issue-September-2006/rolls.html Scotland
re ‘No rocky scene in
Re Banks’s recommendation of
Banks was presumably aware that to display too much of his private passion for botany might weaken his recommendation. Yet the committee recorded his belief that “It was not to be doubted, that a tract of land such as New Holland, which was larger than
Europe, would furnish matter of advantageous return.”
On Aboriginal foods and on ‘bush tucker’ see, for instance: http://www.cse.csiro.au/research/nativefoods/index.htm and
On the lost crops of the Incas, see
http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=030904264X Also on the neglect and loss of many Solanum crops: http://www.naturalhub.com/grow_fruit_type_tamarillo_relative_new_zealand.htm
On the effects of introduced diseases upon Aborigines, see Barry Smith’s ‘The “History Wars” and Aboriginal Health’, Australian Book Review, April 2005, pages 16-18.
On the three environmental classics in 1966, see historian Don Garden’s lively account of the changing fortunes of environment and environmentalists in
, at Australia
Re ‘Bob Carr.
See also the transcript of his November 2002 interview with Ticky Fullerton (ref. below). He was not quite unique. The Labor Party president Barry Jones sometimes showed similar independence. Another politician of equal courage, though belonging to a less powerful party, was John Coulter, former leader of the Australian Democrats, who contributes regularly to
's Population Forum. During his term as leader he was fiercely targeted by the Murdoch Press. Australia
On the Jevons paradox in
, see ‘Powerful Choices: Options for Australia ’s transition to a low-carbon economy’, Barney Foran and David Crane, publication pending. Available from firstname.lastname@example.org Australia
On population-related issues in
The main academic magazine is People and Place. For online content see
http://www.highbeam.com/People+and+Place/publications.aspx?date=200606 An informative website for population-conscious conservationists is
http://www.population.org.au/ maintained by the group Sustainable Population Australia (to which the author belongs). Current population news is exchanged and discussed on its Population Forum.
For contrary views see http://www.apop.com.au/ (mottoes: “Populate and Prosper” and “A Vision of a Greater Australia”) the website of the Australian Population Institute, mentioned by Betts and Gilding.
See also Dr Clive Hamilton’s book Growth Fetish, which emphasizes consumption rather than population, but sees the importance of both.
On population pressure in
See : ‘Revealed the
Flats Squeeze’, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney 26/12/2006; cf. Sydney Morning Herald, 27/12/2006 ‘Residents fear impact of imposed population explosion’. See also Growth Fetish.
State of the Environment reports. See for instance
For discussion of polls on immigration, see
On enquiries into Australia’s carrying capacity, see http://www.labshop.com.au/dougcocks/abernethyfinal.htm and http://www.cse.csiro.au/publications/2002/dilemmasdistilled.pdf and
http://www.science.org.au/media/pop2040.htm (re the Academy of Science’s 1994 statement, published as Population 2040: Australia's Choice).
State of the Environment reports. See for instance
For discussion of polls on immigration, see
On enquiries into Australia’s carrying capacity, see http://www.labshop.com.au/dougcocks/abernethyfinal.htm and http://www.cse.csiro.au/publications/2002/dilemmasdistilled.pdf and
http://www.science.org.au/media/pop2040.htm (re the Academy of Science’s 1994 statement, published as Population 2040: Australia's Choice).
On the oddities of multicultural theory in
in the Hawke-Keating period, see Robert Dessaix’s essay ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’, Australian Book Review, Feb./March 1991, no. 128, pages 22-28. Australia
On the word ‘Australian/Australians’ being misleading and borderline-racist, see the book Mistaken Identity by S. Castles, M. Kalantzis, B. Cope and M. Morrissey, Pluto Press,
, 1990. Sydney
On Aboriginal and Maori protests against being ‘immigrated on’, see the author’s This Tired Brown Land, Duffy and Snellgrove, Sydney 1998, pages 287-292.
and a summary of the report itself at http://www.cse.csiro.au/publications/2002/dilemmasdistilled.pdf
On misuse of terms like ‘diversity’ to trump environmentalist concerns, see
http://www.thesocialcontract.com/artman2/publish/tsc0802/article_698.shtml and http://naf.org.au/stone.rtf On the Labor politician most associated with this line, see http://sunday.ninemsn.com.au/sunday/cover_stories/transcript_1061.asp
On the article ‘The growth lobby and
This was published in People and Place, but is available online at http://www.population.org.au/issues/Growth_lobby_and_immigration.pdf
On the public being confused by government ‘disinformation’ about population stats, see the revealing interviews with university students in ABC Radio National’s recent Encounter program on population. Transcript at: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/encounter/stories/2007/2101209.htm#transcript
On French discouragement as opposed to Anglo-Celtic support of land speculation, see Sheila Newman’s research at http://search.arrow.edu.au/articles/135692