Quote of the Moment:

“Nature has given us two ears but only one mouth.”

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Landscapes that we know to have been more productive in earlier times, should be reminding us that never before, since humans have walked the earth, has the function of Earth’s ‘life support system’ been so gravely at risk. There is a growing body of evidence that this need not be the case. This is exciting. - It is however important that whilst we debate environmental issues and concerns, that we do not overlook certain points:

  1. The backdrop: Much of our current “knowledge” about the arid and savanna type environments on this planet comes from studying environments that were already dysfunctional (by the time modern scientific study began) because of historic human activity and influences. e.g. Here in Australia we have inherited a functionally impaired ecological resource base. It is impossible to sustain the current rate of extraction of nutrients for human use, without a radical change in management techniques.

    The nature of current expectations (20 million humans making a claim for a high standard of living and a desire to export natural products) calls for theory, debate and political rhetoric to be translated to a reversal of many trends currently impacting our oceans and our landscapes. Desertification needs to be halted and then reversed. (Australia is a significant contributor to desertification which on land surfaces alone is estimated to be advancing at over 16’000 ah/day on a global scale.) Eco-system function in most of our immediate landscapes needs to be restored and/or enhanced. For this to happen, the nature as well as the root causes of current trends will need to be acknowledged and understood by those in positions of influence.

  2. We need to recognize the important ecological role of grassland communities and how they function. We also need to explore their potential. This is particularly important in Australia and other dry regions on the planet. Perhaps the current drought and recent fires may serve as a late wake-up reminder call to bring to mind that we as a Nation have been managing towards these sort of scenarios fore many decades by forcing our land managers to focus on immediate commercial survival, or personal or corporate financial success at the expense of learning about the implications of the natural laws that govern the “brittle” environments of this planet. (Relatively new thinking, but it has been around for over forty years now.) Convincing evidence indicates that over 90% of Australia’s large animal species became extinct since the first humans came to this continent. It stands to reason that a similar percentage of above ground animal biomass was thus lost to Australian environments. More crucial however was the resultant impairment of eco-system function in many Australian environments. (This often happens long before a species actually becomes extinct - a bit like one side of a football team losing seven players in the first quarter of a grand final… a loss of team effectiveness precedes the loss of individual performance of the remaining players.)

    Aboriginal Australia was able to compensate for an excessive annual production of certain types of vegetation by over time introducing managed fire to many of Australia’s landscapes. Fire (apart from itself being a major source of current atmospheric pollution) is however not capable of replacing the functions that Australia’s lost large herbivores used to perform (it was used to restore balance – something like the referee asking the other team to send seven of their players off too so that the game could be more even). It is only with the relatively recent reintroduction of large herbivores that Australians actually stand a chance to revitalize eco-system function on this dehydrating continent. Practices will however need to shift from the current extractive European-type styles of management to better mimicking natural systems.

  3. Whilst it is important to recognize, admit to and to reduce our role in contaminating environments and causing unnecessary loss of life, it is more urgent to regenerate the natural processes of purification and healing within our landscapes, waterways and oceans and to permit and to promote rebirth in the areas where our influences currently make this impossible.

    (We can compare this with the social challenge of unemployment or unemployability: The prevailing system encourages those in the work force to be skilled, efficient and earning income that can be taxed to support those who do not have a job; It would however seem to be equally important to integrate those without a job into the workforce by offering guidance, training opportunities and opportunities for meaningful work - a process that initially has costs involved, but one that pays dividends in the end. Similarly we see the logic in helping an accident victim go through the process of first-aid, stabilisation, healing of mental and physical trauma, therapy and then the restructuring of the individual's life to accommodate for the time out and/or any constraints or impairment in performance that may be a result of the accident. It is vital that we also apply this line of reasoning at an ecological level: we need to follow up "first-aid" with a much greater focus on the rehabilitation of dysfunctional environments and landscapes using natural and safe "low-tech" methods.)

  4. At an eco-system process level it would seem that highest priority is to explore, learn about and encourage ways to capture more sunlight energy into the natural systems we manage. For all practical purposes sunlight energy is an infinite resource that is offered to us each day. Apparently the photosynthetic process only accounts for about 2% of this gift, yet if used in accordance with what seems to be the greater design, photosynthesis fuels and renews all biological life in our eco-system, thus making all vegetation and active soils a renewable resource.

Caution, sound research and monitoring remain important as ever; It is very natural for us to wish to reject information that challenges a knowledge base on which industries, careers and life-styles continue to rely.

To ignore the mentioned issues often indicates either a lack of social responsibility or a lack of environmental literacy. Each of us can do something about that, if we so choose.

By Chris Henggeler, January 2003