I’ve been pondering for some time how to approach this subject but maybe the best way is to come right out and say it:
People, it's time to make the hard choices.
This article appeared in my inbox some weeks ago, outlining the four most effective ways we can cut down our carbon footprint, and it’s got nothing to do with plastic bags.
Before dealing with these, let's look at the easy options first. There are a lot of wonderful, committed people around who are doing fantastic work in minimising plastic use in order to stop the flood of plastic waste getting into our waterways and the ocean. Initiatives such as reusable ‘Boomerang’ shopping bags in supermarkets and stores, lobbying supermarkets to stop prepackaging fresh produce in plastic and taking reusable containers to the deli counter instead of taking the disposable plastic ones are all good moves, but really, using glitter in kids' facepaint is not the most pressing environmental issue we're facing.
Governments are getting on board: the Queensland government has recently banned the release of helium-filled balloons in an effort to reduce litter and waste, the ACT government has had a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags for years and the NSW government has recently introduced a container deposit scheme – Return and Earn – to encourage more recycling.
Solar panels are proliferating on roofs all over the place, and in a country with more sunshine than we know what to do with, this is a no-brainer. Renewable energy is economically smart, efficient and reduces our reliance on fossil fuels.
While there is much more that can be done in these areas, programs to encourage renewable energy and recycling, and community-driven initiatives in reducing waste are still the easy options when it comes to reducing our impact on the environment.
The Big Decisions however, the ones that, as individuals, will give us our best shot at reducing our ecological footprints, are the ones that government can’t legislate. There’s no passing the buck on these: we can’t lobby our local councils or blame government for inaction.
It’s not about plastic bags
Let’s look at the hard choices we need to make one by one:
1. Having fewer (or no) children. Obviously this is not an option for people who have already had their families – it’s not like you can sell one kid off for the good of the planet. I think there might be laws against that sort of thing. However, for people who are considering having children, this is a major decision. It is a fundamental human right to have a family and this is not something that can be regulated in a democracy. Having one child instead of two will save, according to the article linked above, 58.6 tons of carbon emissions.
2. Not having a car. Again, this is not something the government can regulate: this is an individual decision and for some, having a car is a necessity. However, people who live in urban areas where public transport is available need to assess their travel requirements. During the Second World War, the British government published posters asking people to reconsider their need to travel by rail (presumably in order to keep the trains free for military travel). "Is your journey really necessary?" is a question we could ask ourselves before turning the ignition in the car. Certainly, government can assist by ensuring that mass transit is efficient and affordable and let’s face it, some governments do this better than others. The ultimate decision, however, is ours.
3. Not traveling by air. It’s fast, efficient and relatively cheap, but it’s also a major source of carbon emissions. As an academic I was often required to fly to the other side of the world for a conference only to turn around and fly back two days later. This is madness (and deeply ironic, considering that frequently the topic of said conferences was environmental policy!), but it is also the reality for people in a lot of professions where travel is simply part of the job. We have the technology to do meetings and conferences via a number of electronic platforms, yet the mindset persists that it is necessary to undertake long journeys that are inefficient in terms of time and resources. Can we, as individuals, take the decision to cut back on air travel?
4. Not eating meat. This is the one that seems to cause the most angst – particularly among meat-eaters who don’t want to change their habits. Yet there are mountains of research articles on why a plant-based diet is environmentally more responsible than eating meat – for example, here, here and here. And this is aside from the ethical arguments.
These are choices we can – should – all make, yet we continue to play around the edges of the problem of climate change by taking up the easy choices and ignoring the really hard ones. It’s not about plastic bags. It’s about big, hard and unpopular decisions that we can’t flick to the government.
Personal report card
For the record – I score two out of four. I have no children and I’ve been vegetarian since the early 90s. Living a considerable distance out of town, not having a car is not an option for me (I've considered making biodiesel on-site but really, with my technical skills the potential for blowing myself up is pretty high), and since retiring from full time academic work my air travel has reduced considerably.
Assessment: good but room for improvement. How's your personal report card?
The following exchange appeared recently on a local rural community Facebook page regarding local weather patterns and the current drought in the region:
“…one flood in 50's washed bridges away. We were isolated for months. We have had very wet times droughts before and will have them again. The climate is a dynamic thing always changing. Greenies have just realised it is dry. 25 years before european [sic] settlement worst drought Australia has ever had. No co2 then.”
“I look forward to things getting back to wet times again (if it happens) will sort a lot of ppl [sic] out.”
It’s hard to know where to begin explaining the concept of climate change in the face of such wilful ignorance, and even harder to believe that such attitudes still exist against the mountain of scientific evidence supporting what is no longer just a ‘theory’, but a proven and accelerating climatic phenomenon.
In her 2014 book, Global Warming and Climate Change: What Australia knew and buried...then framed a new reality for the public, Dr Maria Taylor explains that our understanding of climate change in the 1980s and 90s was better than it is now. There was widespread acceptance of the scientific facts on climate trends, a better understanding of the difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ and social and political willingness to address the issue.
Over the past two decades, vested interests have hijacked the policy and political agendas and manipulated public attitudes via compliant media, allowing discussions such as the ridiculous one quoted above to be taken seriously in the public domain. The issue has been framed as a 'debate' as though there is doubt that needs to be questioned. It's worth remembering that the tobacco lobby did precisely the same thing when medical evidence pointed to the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
The premise of climate change deniers appears to be that somehow ‘greenies’ manufactured this whole climate change thing for some hidden reason and the fact that there have been extreme weather events in the past disproves the whole shebang. That these attitudes are promulgated within rural communities that rely on the environment and climate for their life and livelihoods is even more astounding. These are precisely the communities that should be (and many are) aware of the trends in climate and should be pushing the policy agenda towards specifics such as emissions reduction, renewable energy and revegetation. Pointing to isolated weather events (a flood in the ‘50s) or suggesting that the end of the current drought will put an end to all this climate change folly (will sort of a lot of people out) is, at best, simplistic shortsightedness, and at worst, dangerous ignorance.
The current drought will end. Drought is a cyclical event in this country and very dry times are typically broken by very wet periods. This is not climate change: this is climatic variability and is a feature of this country.
Climate change is global and complex. It is evidenced by warmer sea temperatures which, in turn, affect the movement of air masses across the landmasses; melting glaciers and polar ice caps; rising temperatures; more frequent extreme weather events such as tropical storms.[Graph from NASA GISS]
The willingness of people to dismiss climate change as a greenie plot is a symptom of the human reluctance to deal with change of any kind. Change is big and scary and there is no bigger or scarier change than one that affects the entire planet. Addressing such change means making big decisions at individual, community and political levels. Yet rather than accepting the need for such decisions for the sake of future generations and the Earth itself, we are seeing a rear-guard action fighting against such decisions on the flimsiest of arguments.
There is no climate change debate any more. The time for debate is over and has been for some time. There are now only facts and evidence; and that evidence is no longer just theoretical, it is empirical. Anthropogenic climate change did not appear overnight. It was first acknowledged and studied at scientific level in the 1950s. Over six decades the statistics have been mounting. It’s time for the phony ‘debate’ to be silenced and the perpetuators of the phony debate to be shown for what they are: either greedy industrialists who profit from polluting the environment, or simple-minded lemmings.
After my last blog entry, I’ve been doing some serious thinking about what date could be sufficiently inclusive to nominate as a National Day. As I mentioned in my previous entry, once we become a republic, and I’m fairly sure that will happen – eventually – we’ll have a date, but it will be a bureaucratic date; a date signifying a change of administration – a date for public servants and politicians and bureaucrats. How unAustralian is that?
In no particular order, then, I offer the following list of potential national dates for your consideration, dear reader, with my critiques of same and finally my chosen date: the date I believe will draw us together in joyful celebration of Australia and all who sail in her.
1. January 1. This is Federation Day, the day in 1901 when the six separate Australian colonies joined together to become one nation. Sure, they all hated one another – Victoria and New South Wales weren’t on speaking terms, Queensland and Western Australia were sulking because they had about half of the land and its resources between them and suspected (with some justification) that they were being forced into handing them over, South Australia was stuck between the West and the East and wasn’t sure where to turn and Tasmania was just hoping it wouldn't be dropped off the map. Not a lot has changed. Unfortunately Federation Day falls on New Year’s Day when most of the country wakes up hungover and may not be able to face the traditional boozy BBQ and backyard cricket required of a national celebration. But there’s ...
2. July 9: on this day in 1900 Queen Victoria, bless her heart, signed the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, the document that put everything described in (1) into action. Sadly, if there was ever a bureaucratic anniversary it’s this one. UnAustralian. Move to ...
3. May 9: in 1901, this was the opening of the first Federal Parliament in Australia by the Duke of York, later King George V. All the states’ reps were there with hot and cold running dignitaries. Only one problem, it was in Melbourne. Are Sydneysiders going to rush to embrace a national day centred on Melbs? Of course, the current Australia Day is all about Sydney, but it seems Melburnians are a bit more open-minded, or had no choice in the matter. Besides, like both the above, another bureaucratic and political anniversary, so let’s move to something more cultural ...
4. March 18: this is when the first episode of Neighbours first aired on TV. While it wasn’t Australia’s first cultural export, it spawned the export of a number of its headliners, notably one Ms Minogue, who exported herself right out of the country and now resides in Britain. Still, its all-Aussie suburban flavour made it a hit both here and overseas. Could there be a more fitting cultural anniversary? Well, maybe …
5. October 12: in 1972 Australia’s film industry was somewhat less sophisticated than it is now, and this date commemorates the UK release of the all-Aussie film, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, which also launched the international stellar career of Barry Humphries as Edna Everage, Moonee Ponds housewife and later Dame and Superstar. Ah, yes. The poms inflicted this country with boatloads of convicts and in return we inflicted them with Barry McKenzie and some interesting vocabulary. A fair swap. But then there’s …
6. November 25: we all love a good controversy and this one is still simmering. Other than the current Australia Day date, there's no date more likely to inflame passions like a burnt snag on the barbie. Yes, this is the date Gough Whitlam approved the purchase for $1.3 million of the Pollock masterpiece, Blue Poles. It was then the highest price ever paid for a work of abstract art. The painting is now conservatively valued at $350 million and its purchase regarded as a stroke of genius. By some. But maybe a cultural anniversary doesn’t quite sum up the Aussie spirit. How about …
7. September 26: If you were alive in 1983 you will remember clearly where you were at around 8.30am (Eastern time) when the siren sounded as Australia II won the America’s Cup. The longest winning streak in sporting history was over and the prized yachting trophy was unbolted from its plinth in the New York Yacht Club to head to its new digs in Freo. The popping of champagne corks resonated around the country. Prime Minister Bob Hawke, appearing on TV in a beer-and-champagne-soaked jacket covered with 'Australia' and little flags in the shape of the country (including Tasmania), famously announced that “any boss who sacks someone for not turning up for work today is a bum.” Thousands of Australians took him up on it. The economy could have ground to a standstill were it not for the amount spent on beer. A truly national celebration. But then there’s...
8. October 24: If the larrikinism of the former PM is not enough, how about the anniversary of the day in 1964 when Dawn Fraser nicked the Olympic flag from the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo during the Olympic Games. Only hours before Fraser, who had won enough gold at the Olympics to buy her own Imperial Palace, was due to carry the Australian flag into the arena for the Closing Ceremony, she found herself in a police lock-up trying to explain why, at 3.00am, she was up a flagpole outside His Imperial Majesty’s bedchamber. An act surely embodying the true grit of the Australian spirit.
But no, I have rejected all of these dates, deserving of honour though they most certainly are. I have chosen for our National Day instead, 15th December. Yes, dear reader, the birthday of Lance Hill: one of the greatest yet least heralded Australians in the history of this wide brown land.
In 1945 Mrs Hill opined to her husband that what she really needed was a clothesline that had an adjustable height, one that wouldn’t take up the whole bleedin’ backyard and one where she could stand in one spot to hang out the washing, a clothesline that wouldn’t be backbreaking or difficult to use and might, with some creativity, be multifunctional. Quick as a dog after a posite Lance was down to his local scrapyard and using bits of metal scrounged from war surplus stocks, he built the prototype Hills Hoist. True Aussie ingenuity at its best.
Who among us, compadres, does not recall a summer childhood spent under a hose tied to the Hills in the backyard? Who has never been reprimanded by their mother for swinging on the clothesline and then done it anyway? Again and again and again. Who else remembers those canvas cover thingies that were designed to fit over the top of the Hills to provide shade in the vast treeless expanses that were our suburbs, and was there ever a better launching pad for fireworks on cracker night? What red-blooded Aussie housewife didn’t aspire to her own Hills Hoist in her own backyard? So iconic is the humble Hills that it featured in the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Lord only knows what the international audience made of it, but who cares! It’s ours and yes, we’re damned proud of it.
So, Australians all let us rejoice, let us honour the genius of the man who gave us all this: I hereby declare our new national day to be Hills Day, 15th December. Lance Hill, take a bow, sir. We salute you.
Back in the dark ages of my primary schooling, we were taught that Captain Cook discovered Australia in 1770 and that the British settled here in 1788; the First Fleet arrived in Port Jackson on 26th January. We knew that the first settlement was a penal colony and we learned that the aborigines were a primitive, nomadic people who were given beads and other trinkets in order to ensure that the settlement could be peaceful. We now know that what we were taught was lies. Total, unmitigated, baldfaced lies.
Captain Cook was the first to chart the east coast of Australia, an achievement not to be underestimated, but the Dutch and Portuguese knew about the existence of the country for at least a century before Cook’s arrival. The true ‘discovery’ of the country, however, had occurred at least 60,000 years prior to the arrival of white men, and quite likely much earlier, by a race of people who were far from primitive and nomadic and whose land and social management were adapted and perfectly suited to a large and diverse continent.
The day we call Australia Day is, in fact, the anniversary of the second landing of the male convicts. Doesn’t sound quite so auspicious, does it? The entire First Fleet (quick test: how many ships were there?*) was in place in Botany Bay by the 18th January. This means that the first of the ships probably arrived a week or more prior to that.
The ships carrying the male convicts sailed up the coast and entered Port Jackson through the Heads, landing on the 26th. It is the anniversary of the landing at what became Sydney. It’s Sydney Day. This fact alone should mean that no one in Victoria or Queensland would want anything to do with it, nor, for that matter, anyone in the west where a healthy distrust of anything east of the Nullabor is de rigeur. No wonder history was massaged.
We also know that the peaceful settlement of the country never occurred. From the outset, British troops were ordered to shoot to kill any natives who approached the colony. There are over 80 massacres of aboriginal people on the record, beginning in 1788 and continuing through to the 1920s. And these are just the ones on the record. Thus began the official attempt at genocide that culminated with the stealing of ‘mixed race’ children between the 1910s and the 1970s. It seems that the government turned to a bureaucratic form of genocide once the violent method seemed not to be working.
Hardly any wonder that many Australians are calling for a change of the date of our ‘national day’. It’s neither national nor is it a cause for celebration.
Will changing the date of Australia Day change history? No. But there's two two things that can start to atone for those wrongs:
Firstly, teach the truth. Ensure that young Australians at school in the 21st Century learn the truth about the colonisation and settlement of this country. Teach them about the horrors of genocide and the brutality of taking land. Colonialism is not a pretty story in any language; and that story is told in many languages. The British, Dutch, French, Germans, Spanish, Portuguese and Belgians all bear the stain of colonial horrors in their histories. Teaching the truth of these horrors won’t change the past, but it may change the future.
Secondly, move quickly towards becoming a republic. Successive governments have indicated that there will be no such move while Queen Elizabeth remains on the throne, but in August last year, the Queen announced that should she still be alive when she turns 95, she will request that the Regency Act of 1937 be invoked, which will pass all regal duties to her heir. The Queen turns 92 in April this year. We have three years to prepare for our own transition. Then we can have a national day that belongs to all of us.
Images: the top one - what we were taught (awestruck natives treating the new arrivals like gods); the bottom one - what happened (natives armed with spears used only for hunting being mowed down by mounted troops).
Part 3 of my series on how manure can save the planet ...
The Tao of Poo
“A young English couple was visiting with me one summer after I had been composting humanure for about six years. One evening, as dinner was being prepared, the couple suddenly understood the horrible reality of their situation: the food they were about to eat was recycled human shit. When this fact abruptly dawned upon them, it seemed to set off an instinctive alarm, possibly inherited directly from Queen Victoria. "We don't want to eat shit!" they informed me, rather distressed (that's an exact quote), as if in preparing dinner I had simply set a steaming turd on a plate in front of them with a knife, fork and napkin.” ― Joseph Jenkins, The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure
This is where (literal) shit gets serious, but first off, a musical interlude.
No, there’s no such thing as waste, including animal waste. That includes humans because, y’know, we’re animals too: four legs good, two legs not necessarily better, with apologies to George Orwell. While any organic matter, from grass clippings to deceased household pets (well, deceased anything for that matter) will contribute to the health of the soil, the point of this series of blog articles is to focus on manure: the ultimate renewable resource. It goes something like this: cow eats grass, grass nourishes cow, cow’s digestive system processes grass, cow excretes waste, waste nourishes soil, soil grows grass … and so forth, until, ultimately cow dies (if it’s lucky and not sold for slaughter first) and then cow decomposes and nourishes soil for more grass and more cows. The process is cyclical and here’s the thing, all natural processes are cyclical. That’s what makes them work. Natural processes of growth, death and decay ensure that resources are maintained through absorption and utilisation of what we call ‘waste’.
Our artificial processes are not cyclical; they are linear. Human waste is whisked away with the push of a button and we don’t think about it again. Household waste goes out in the bin and is collected once a week in a truck. It vanishes. We don’t care where it goes, just so long as it does so quickly and without noise or inconvenience. Modern society has decreed that waste is dirty, smelly and a health hazard – and it is, but only because of the volume in which it’s generated and the method in which it is treated. Or not treated. The term ‘waste management’ is actually a euphemism for ‘waste mismanagement’. ‘Landfill’ is simply a technical term for digging a hole in the ground and filling it with garbage. It is not sustainable, it is not clean or efficient and it is not effective. The only thing landfills will be useful for in the future is as archaeological sites where the historians of the future can study and wonder at 20th and 21st Century society. Surely in a world as technologically developed as ours, we could think of a better method of waste disposal than shoving it in a hole in the ground? Well, yes, of course we could, but ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is the philosophy behind waste disposal. But I digress …
In the 1970s and 80s the sewerage treatment systems of Sydney, built for a smaller city, were unable to cope with the burgeoning population and increased waste load, and sewage outfall was polluting the famed beaches along the Sydney coast. In the late 1980s, green activist and later Greens MLC in in the New South Wales Parliament, Ian Cohen, travelled along the coast of NSW, including in Sydney, towing an 8 metre long turd to protest the government’s inaction on sewage outfall at beaches. Cohen’s focus was water pollution, which had reached critical proportions in some places (the term ‘Bondi cigar’ just one colourful example) and eventually the situation was improved at an infrastructural level. The basic problem remained, however, and persists to this day. Our waste disposal system is one-way. Food is grown in the soil, transported to urban areas, eaten, and the waste flushed out to sea. Meanwhile, farmers are spending millions of dollars on fertilizers to keep the soil viable for production of more food. Chemical fertilizers are entering our food stream and thus, our bodies.
How important is manure? Important enough to be partly responsible for revolution. In 1787-88, France was in the grip of a severe drought. Farmers, with little fodder for livestock, killed most of their cows and sheep. This led to a manure crisis. Without precious manure to nourish their soils, grain crops failed and the price of bread, the commodity on which the lower classes of society were dependent for food, skyrocketed as supplies became sparser. This led to Marie Antoinette’s oft-(and incorrectly) quoted line, “let them eat cake”, when she was told the peasants had no bread. A hungry populace is a dangerous populace and the rest is history, and while it might be a stretch to blame the French Revolution on a lack of manure, it was certainly one of the contributing factors.
Healthy human faeces is comprised of (percentages are approximate) 30 percent dead bacteria; 30 percent indigestible food matter such as cellulose; 10 to 20 percent cholesterol and other fats; 10 to 20 percent inorganic substances such as calcium phosphate and iron phosphate; and 2 to 3 percent protein. All of which is discarded as waste by our bodies but to the soil it is manna from heaven. Healthy cow manure is essentially digested grass and grain. It is high in organic materials and rich in nutrients: about 3 percent nitrogen, 2 percent phosphorus, and 1 percent potassium (3-2-1 NPK). In addition, cow manure contains high levels of ammonia and potentially dangerous pathogens. The common inorganic fertilizers used in agriculture include ammonia (82% nitrogen), NPK combinations, urea (46% nitrogen), superphosphate, mono and dibasic ammonium phosphates (containing nitrogen and phosphate), calcium ammonium nitrate, potassium chloride (muriate of potash) – all of which nutrients can be found in the material we consider unclean waste.
Composted cow manure
Part 2 of a series of posts on the joy of manure in soil ...
The dirt on soil
Back in the early years of my academic career I worked in a university department with a number of soil scientists. ‘Soilies’ are, generally speaking, affable types who wear sturdy boots and get inordinately excited about digging holes in paddocks. In their natural environment they tend not to get irritated by much, but nonetheless, I managed to annoy them by referring to their soil samples as ‘bags of dirt’. This invariably earned me a frown and a grumbled, “It’s soil. Soil. Dirt is what falls on the floor of the lab.” What, then, is soil?
Soil is the thin layer of friable earth that covers most of the landmasses on Earth. It is a living, breathing organism. The healthier the soil, the more life it supports. Soil consists, in varying proportions, of organic material, minerals, water and air. Each of these provides nutrients to enable the soil to continue to live and, in turn, support life.
Organic matter consists of humus, usually the decomposed or decomposing remains of animal or vegetable material. On average, around 58% of organic matter in soil is soil organic carbon – healthy soil is a carbon sink. The organic component in soil is the basis of its fertility. Healthy soil should contain about 5% organic matter, but this varies. In Australia, alpine soils may contain up to 10%, desert soils less than 1%. It is cause for alarm, however, that in some areas, agricultural soils have dropped below that 1% mark.
Minerals comprise the non-organic component of soil and the largest component at around 45%. These can range from silica through to clay and are usually the residue of the rock structures around and under the soil. Different regions obviously have different soil minerals depending upon the landscape and its underlying mineral structure.
The remaining 50% of soil components are water and air, each around 20-30% depending on the soil type and surrounding conditions.
Air provides the aerobic action necessary for the soil. Just like our skin needs to breathe, so too does the soil. Air is trapped around the particles of the soil and allows organic material to decompose, which in turn provide nutrients. Just like us, without air the soil cannot breathe and will die.
Water is held in the soil by the organic material and acts to dissolve solutes, maintain subsoil moisture levels and regulate temperature. Soils that are low in organic matter will also be low in water content and will not retain water. Such soils may become ‘hydrophobic’, which means that water will pool and run off the surface without sinking into the soil structure.
While a balance of all four components is necessary for soil function, for my purposes in this series of blog articles I will be focusing on the organic component, and more specifically, what we can do to enhance and maintain a healthy, productive soil.
Our soils are currently in decline. In Australia, our soil is old. This is the oldest landmass on Earth and as such, our mountains are eroded, our rocks ancient and our topsoil layer thin. While it is easy to blame spatial and temporal geography for having thin soils of poor quality, that is a flimsy excuse. Australian soils have been, to put it bluntly, flogged to death.
The most fertile soils, and thus the most productive agricultural regions, in Australia occur along the east coast, and in the south-east and south-west corners. These areas are also, and not coincidentally, the areas with the highest annual rainfall and the highest human population density. This means that while nature took several billion years to produce a good, fertile layer of topsoil, we have taken only a couple of hundred to cover it with roads, houses, airports, factories, schools, shopping malls… Every day, on that relatively narrow strip of fertile land, urban development is encroaching on agricultural land.
Areas that were, until recently, large farms producing food for our cities, are rapidly being subdivided into ‘rural residential’ blocks, which are not large enough to sustain agriculture and draw on urban utilities, while farming is being marginalised into the less fertile areas.
One of the points of this series of blogs is to get fertility back into urban and peri-urban soils, so that food may once again be produced where the soil and rainfall is best. The other point is to provide a perspective on biowaste that views it not as something to be disposed of and which draws on resources for that disposal, but as a resource itself.
Your soil needs you.
Watch this space for the next post on The tao of poo
[Soil maps from CSIRO Soil and Landscape Grid: http://www.clw.csiro.au/aclep/soilandlandscapegrid/ViewData-Portal.html
This is Part 1 of a series of blogs entitled Pooping for the Planet. The purpose is to show how organic waste - including biosolids and manures - can be the basis of ensuring productive soils and, by extension, sustainable agriculture and food security, into the future.
Ask not what the soil can do for you; ask what you can do for the soil.
One of the greatest crimes committed by modern western society is that we use potable water to dispose of what is regarded as waste. Manure, dung, excrement, shit – call it what you will, but the crime is threefold: the use of precious water resources to wash away another resource that could well save the planet, thus turning both resources into pollution. What were we thinking?
We know that human activity since the Industrial Revolution has altered not just the landscape, but the climate of the planet. Climate change is already biting hard in many parts of the globe. Extreme weather events caused by the rise in sea temperatures are devastating coastlines, while dustbowls are replacing food bowls in some countries. In the foreseeable future, droughts will become longer and drier, the sea temperature is rising, causing more frequent and stronger cyclones and hurricanes as well as coral bleaching, which in turn will wipe out some species of marine life. In Australia, our bushfire season will be extended and these events will become more frequent. Areas that are already vulnerable to climatic extremes and fluctuations will become uninhabitable. It’s too late now to stop the impact of climate change. Decisive and positive action can slow it down and mitigate its effects, but climate change is happening. It has entered a positive feedback loop where its own effects contribute to and subsequently increase those effects.
The good news? We can offset a lot of the negative effects of climate change by reversing our one-way system of waste disposal. Yes, it really is that simple. And that complex.
Feeding the 8 billion
The global human population reached 7 billion in 2011. On current United Nations estimates, it will reach 8 billion in 2024 and 9 billion in 2042. This is within the life expectancy of almost everyone who is likely to be reading this now. The question is not so much where will all these people live, but what will they eat?
According to the UN, by 2050 “it is expected that half of the world’s population growth will be concentrated in just nine countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, the United States of America, Uganda and Indonesia (ordered by their expected contribution to total growth).”
All but one of these countries are currently classified as developing countries, meaning they are economically reliant on external sources and are typically poor in agriculture. Put bluntly, by 2050, about 4.5 billion people will live in countries that are not able to support sufficient agriculture to feed themselves. Given that one of the priority goals of the UN’s Sustainable Development Program is to end hunger and develop food security and sustainable agriculture, the outlook is challenging. Sustainable agriculture needs sustainable soils.
Soil is the Earth’s skin. Like our own skin, it can be damaged by over-exposure and needs to be nourished and protected if it is to remain healthy. We look after our own skin by eating well, limiting or abstaining from unhealthy activities, and protecting our skin from excess exposure to the sun. A healthy skin protects our bodies from infection and bacteria, assists in maintaining our body temperature, protects our blood vessels and nerve endings and minimises dehydration. The Earth’s skin performs exactly the same function.
Healthy soil, like healthy human skin, protects the underlying structures of the Earth, such as groundwater and subsoil, from disease, dehydration and extremes of temperature. This is increasingly important as the effects of climate change become more evident. As I write this, vast tracts of California are on fire in the worst wildfire event on record. The USA has also just experienced three hurricanes in quick succession and parts of the Midwest are ravaged by drought while Ireland is being hit by a rare east-moving hurricane. Closer to home, south east Australia is in drought with no sign of rain in the short term.
A healthy, functioning layer of soil protects water resources and will not blow away during high winds during periods of drought. It’s an old joke that Australia’s biggest export to New Zealand is topsoil. During a severe dust storm in 2009, Canberra and other inland cities were blanketed in red silt, which then continued to blow eastwards to the Tasman Sea. The CSIRO estimated that at the peak of the storm, which lasted from the 22nd to the 24th September, 75,000 tonnes of topsoil were being blown off the NSW coast per hour. That’s a lot of topsoil.
Soil also performs one other important function: it grows our food. The only way we will feed a global population of 8 billion within the next three decades, and 11 billion by the end of this century, is to ensure that the Earth’s skin remains healthy and productive.
In Part 2 we will look at what constitutes soil and why that constitution matters.
I like cats. I also like wildlife. Too often cat-owners are demonised by wildlife groups as being irresponsible, but you can have your cats and still be surrounded by native birds and small animals.
When Roger and I moved from the Snowy Mountains to Canberra back in 2001, we had two cats. Albie and Woodstock were country cats. They’d roamed the paddocks happily, caught rabbits and the odd bird and on one memorable occasion a one-metre brown snake that resulted in a rushed trip to the vet. Every year a family of swallows would nest in the rafters on the verandah, and every year, right on cue, Albie, a semi-feral tabby, would eat one of the parent birds (only one, mind you). Woodstock caught himself a magpie when he was about six months old and proudly carried the squawking bird around the yard while every other magpie in the Snowy Mountains dive-bombed him. We had to chase him round the house until we could catch him, prise his little jaws apart and free the unharmed but very pissed-off bird.
I’d always had misgivings about the cats free-ranging and the move to the city reinforced my opinion that keeping the cats confined was better for them and better for the local wildlife.
We rented a house in Belconnen and with the approval of the owner we erected a large Weldmesh enclosure and attached it to the outside back wall of the house. We nicknamed it The Catatorium and Woody and Albie had access to and from it via the window of the back room. We 'furnished' it with ladders and shelves and scratching posts and the like. Cats are highly adaptable animals and once they’d familiarised themselves with their new habitat and established their new boundaries they settled in quite happily.
Ernest Hemingway, owner of multiple cats, once said, “one cat just leads to another.” This said, when, 10 years later, we finally moved back to the country, our cat family had grown to four. The Catatorium was dismantled and came with us to be re-erected at the side of the yurt. The cats (now six of them … Hemingway was right!) have access to it via a trapdoor in the bookshelf and a custom-built tunnel elevated off the back deck. It’s all very Hogwarts as they appear and disappear through the bookshelf (pictured, left).
Different cats have different approaches to the outdoor facility. Midgley, for example, likes to be outside in all weather and is quite happy perched up high watching the clouds go by. At the other end of spectrum, Topaz regards the great outdoors as big and scary and entirely unnecessary as everything she needs is inside. The others use the Catatorium as they wish, day and night, and no one seems to want to go further.
Occasionally a suicidal wren or finch will get through the mesh and depending on which mog is in residence, it often does not end well for the bird, but such occurrences are rare. A baby red-belly black snake got in there once and Tosca thoughtfully brought it inside the house to show us. After that we put a fine mesh wire around the bottom the enclosure. Generally, however, the wildlife remains safe and the cats avoid harm from snakes.
The swallows nest under the eaves of the house; robins, wrens, finches and bowerbirds come and go; bluetongues, skinks and water dragons laze around on rocks in the garden; frogs inhabit the dam and creek - with no more predation than that which normally occurs in nature. Which, of course, it what keeps it all in balance.
While my Catatorium is pretty basic, my friend, Jen, has constructed a full-on playground, The Catio, for her five cats using bird netting, sturdy branches and marine ropes (pictured right and below left). There are also commercial cat enclosures that can be built to order or you can buy the components and build it yourself. One of the best I’ve seen was where the cats exited the house via a cat door above a window and entered a tunnel that ran right around the house under the eaves, with two or three different enclosures coming off the tunnel. That one was in Canberra, and the owners built it after the 2003 bushfires when they’d lost a cat because they couldn’t find it when they had to evacuate. They didn’t lose their house, but the cat was never found.
Of course, a lot of farmers like to keep cats in barns to keep the rodent population under control. That’s fine if you’ve got stored grain or stockfeed that attracts rodents. If however, liked me, you don’t keep stored feed and therefore don’t have a rodent problem, keeping cats and wildlife safe is not difficult.
Over the past couple of months a controversy has erupted over the New South Wales Government’s proposal to cull the brumbies in the Kosciuszko National Park. The proposal, if implemented, would see 50% of the approximately 6000 wild horses in the Snowy Mountains killed over a period of two years.
Setting aside the issue of “culling” as being a politically and socially sanitised word for wholesale slaughter, and the unethical practice of applying such methods to certain target species (why not cull humans, for example, which are in plague proportion?), my interest here is on the counter-campaign: the grassroots movement to save the brumbies. I have been following the discussion of the pro-brumby campaigners via social media over the past few weeks. The current direction of the campaign is a call to have the Snowy Mountains brumbies listed as “heritage”.
Some backstory here. Horses are not native to Australia. There is no record as to when horses were first introduced, but it’s a safe assumption that it was with the First Fleet in 1788. The First Fleet also brought the first rabbits, dogs, cats, rats and various other species of non-native animals, including a human cargo from which many Australians are directly descended. All of these species, as well as later imports such as foxes, deer and camels, have become feral animals. Humans included, it could be said. The first record of wild horses being declared a pest species occurs in around 1860.
Then in 1890, the following words were published in the current affairs magazine, The Bulletin:
There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around/ That the colt from Old Regret had got away,/ And had joined the wild bush horses - he was worth a thousand pound,/ So all the cracks had gathered to the fray…
A.B. “Banjo” Paterson’s classic poem told the story of an expensive thoroughbred horse that had joined a mob of brumbies and, evading the efforts of experienced horsemen to round it up, it took a young Snowy Mountains man, the eponymous Man from Snowy River – a stripling on a small and weedy beast – to retrieve the escaped colt in an epic ride that forms the backbone of the poem.
Almost a century later, filmmaker and director, George Miller, made a movie of the same name, injecting a romantic slant into the story but sticking, more or less, to the epic ride.
I served a term on the Snowy River Shire Council back at the turn of this century, and in that role I saw first-hand the damage that wild horses can do to the fragile alpine environment.
I am, as anyone who has given this blog more than a cursory glance will know, an animal rights advocate. I oppose the killing of animals under any guise, particularly the political convenience of “culling”. I believe there are better, more effective and certainly more humane ways of protecting both animals and environment. I do, however, take issue with the Save the Brumbies campaign on a number of levels.
There is a high degree of misinformation and misinterpretation of the history of feral species in this country generally and horses in particular. An exchange on FaceBook the other day went something like this:
Person A: [Brumbies] are indigenous to Oz.
Me: No, they’re an introduced and feral species.
Person A: They’re as indigenous as white man, and anyway, they’re not feral. Feral means they can’t be domesticated – like hyenas or crocodiles.
Me: Yes they are as indigenous as white people. Which is to say they’re not indigenous. And feral means wild animals, usually descended from domesticated ones.
Person B: It doesn’t matter whether they’re feral or not. We need to have them declared as Heritage.
And so on …
My question here is, if we declare one species of feral animal as “Heritage”, why not all? Why not heritage-listed feral cats? Goats? Dogs? Rabbits? They all damage the environment in different ways where they occur in sufficient number and after all, they’ve all been here for the same amount of time, and the same amount of time as non-Indigenous humans.
Is being enshrined in folklore via a poem sufficient basis for heritage-listing a species that has the capacity to destroy the habitat of native animals whose lineage in this country goes back many thousands of years? Banjo Paterson also wrote a poem about the usefulness of Muscovy ducks during grasshopper plagues. Why is heritage-listing of Muscovy ducks on the basis of folkloric immortality sillier than that of wild horses?
I’ve been called a bleeding heart animal liberationist for my opposition to the ACT Government’s wholesale slaughter of kangaroos, a native animal whose habitat is being systematically covered by Canberra’s urban sprawl. Yet many of those same people opposing the brumby cull also support kangaroo culling and indeed, actively participate in it.
Can we have some consistency here? Brumbies and kangaroos both have their place. It is ludicrous to mount a campaign to save an introduced species while at the same time support killing a native species.
The case for heritage-listing brumbies is philosophically inconsistent. Why place governmental protection over a feral horses? Because they're horses? What's so special about wild horses that they need protection? Because they're horses. The question just keeps repeating itself. The real reasoning is emotive and not logical. This is not to say that logic can't be extrapolated, but in so doing, we have to address the wider issues of what makes an animal worthy of conservation and the flip side of that: what deems an animal to be a pest. None of that discussion is happening around the brumbies issue.
The Snowy Mountains Brumby Rescue Group has taken on the laudable – if somewhat daunting – task of rescuing brumbies for rehoming. This is one very effective and grassroots way of controlling the numbers in the wild. A bit like any domestic animal rescue and rehome operation, it takes time and commitment, but it seems there are many people out there willing to adopt these beautiful creatures. Roping and trapping is a means of ensuring that the horses are able to be caught and controlled non-lethally. Fertility control is another long-term method of feral animal control that could be applied with the sufficient will of the authorities.
Meanwhile, the campaign for the heritage-listing of brumbies is unlikely to succeed until and unless the proponents accept that they are championing a feral species and are able to articulate why that species is more worthy of protection than any other species that has been introduced post-1788. Including Muscovy ducks.