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Papers & Presentations

A Case for “Environmental Literacy”

A tribute to my friend, neighbour and fellow land-manger, Byrne Terry of Ellenbrae Station (Kimberley, Australia)

When Byrne died unexpectedly at 42 years of age he was in the process of beginning to implement a great vision for the land that he managed. I thank Byrne for his consistent support in the raising of ecological awareness in our community.

This is a three-part paper prepared for the 2nd. Biannual Educational “Fire - Forum” held at El Questro 05.05.2001. My thanks go to Lee Scott-Virtue and here enthusiastic team for extending to me this opportunity and for the assistance in preparing and presenting this paper. www.kimberleyspecialists.com

THE KACHANA PERSPECTIVE - Balancing the ecological equation?


This paper is the result of an attempt to capture a blend of experience, observations and available knowledge in a manner that people can relate to. However, the message herein is primarily directed at academia, as I currently perceive academics to be negligent in their social obligation. Much of the terminology I use therefore sounds different to wording I use out in the paddock where the grass-roots stuff (that I refer to in the subject matter) actually takes place.

For over forty years subconsciously, thirty years consciously and over ten years actively, I have been exposed to, and have been dealing with paradigms that the “cult” of mainstream science continues to resist. Interesting results and observations, consistent with these paradigms continue to fascinate me. According to some scientists, it is only in the last decade that it has become physically possible to actually observe some of the processes involved. Technological advancement, with our ever-increasing capabilities at a laboratory level as well as an inter-net assisted "global think-tank" and communications-system has assisted this process.

This paper is intended to be provocative and to promote rational thought and thus the success of functional science. The underlying theme of this paper is that “economics” is much more than merely “finance” or “commerce” and that true “economics” cannot exist without embracing ecological realities relating to landscape function.

Key words: Some words used in this paper may to the average reader imply a meaning different to the one intended. This cannot be totally avoided. I therefore ask the truly critical reader to accept that for the purpose of presenting a land manager’s perspective, to attempt to first understand what it is, that I am attempting to share. To facilitate this I define several key words for the specific context of this paper.

Management: consciously influencing and manipulating variables towards an anticipated outcome.

Paradigms: our deep beliefs anchored in the subconscious mind. Our own, individual paradigms (i.e. deeply held beliefs) create the frame of reference for how we view, perceive and interpret the world and activities that occur around us. A particular action may be viewed in a particular way by one person, and in the opposite - or at least different way by another individual. For instance, actions taken towards deeply held beliefs (paradigms) about ecosystem function can spell either financial life or death to those managing deteriorating land, whilst these issues are largely only of academic relevance to those who derive their financial income from taxpayers or consumers, be they resident in remote communities or cities.

Holistic approach: collaborative bigger picture analysis dependant on accuracy and relevance of information gathered.

Holistic decision-making: an outcome based decision-making process (applicable to any management situation) that maintains big picture clarity while allowing for constantly changing parameters and variables.

Holistic Management: the evolving Allan Savory model of holistic management: basically the budgeting of emotional, physical and financial energy against an ecological backdrop. The process involves environmental literacy (as a means to analyse eco-system function and health), management guidelines in the ecological, social and financial domains and finally a holistic decision-making process to effectively manage the complexity at hand towards a predetermined single comprehensive goal.

Part One:


“My time is the most valuable non renewable resource that I manage” R. Richardson.

Anybody who is touched by the death of a friend or a loved one is reminded of this fact.

Figure 1:The priority matrix
Source: refer to Mr. S Covey's book:

Things we wish to do seem to fall into one of four categories. Mr Stephen Covey instructs us that if we wish to manage our time effectively we need to concentrate on the second quadrant as illustrated in Figure 1. If we prioritise our activities in the manner shown, this quadrant lists things that are important, but rarely urgent...

In a different type of matrix, Mr. Kiyosaki informs us that people who earn their income fall into four basic categories as depicted in Figure 2. According to this internationally acclaimed guru of finance:

Figure 2: The income matrix
Source: "THE CASHFLOW QUADRANT" by Mr. R Kiyosaki; ISBN 0-44667-747-7 

Mr. Kiyosaki recommends that if any uncertainty exists as to which category you belong to that you stop working for a while and you will soon find out. What Mr. Kiyosaki does not spell out, is that the engine of commerce is situated in the second quadrant. Here we find the people who actually make things happen. Given the state of health of our natural resources, I'd suggest that land managers, who wish to be effective, need to fall into this category. They need to recognize the uniqueness of their management situation and to strive to be getting the forces of nature (including humans) to work for them. To do this they do not have to own the land that they manage.

At the speed with which our society now operates, we can no longer solely rely on our own experiences. As in any management situation (where we consciously influence and manipulate variables towards an anticipated outcome), we land managers, need to source additional information. In most cases our desks are already overflowing with the stuff…. But what do we take on board?

The “Info Matrix” (Figure 3) enables us to deal with this situation.

Figure 3: The information matrix
Source: Kachana Pastoral Company


In his book, Mr. Kiyosaki stresses the importance of making sure that the advice you receive is relevant to the quadrant you wish to work in. (I guess that amounts to the old legal term of “caveat emptor” or “do your homework first”). The Kachana perspective tells me that if I want useful management information I need to search in (you may have guessed it…) the second quadrant. I rely on functional science and on information that is practical.

To illustrate this point, let us take the example of an egg producer:

After studying Australian rangelands at the grass-roots for over seventeen years, and from a functional and academic perspective for the last five years, I get the distinct impression that there are signals out there in our landscapes that we either simply not getting, ignoring or worst of all misinterpreting. To meaningfully interpret these messages (including the colour of our skies when we light fires, the colour of our water when it rains, mudflats, too many weeds, dingoes, donkeys, flies, diseases, droughts, floods, global climate change etc) we need to improve our command of environmental literacy.

“Environmental Literacy” is all about us humans being able to “read” what is going on in a particular environment viewed from an ecological perspective rather than from a human perspective. (Whilst the ecological perspective relates to eco-system function, the human perspective is generally dominated by one of the following: immediate survival, power, production, appearance, comfort, political or peer pressure, social or moral obligations, etc.)

I believe we need to be asking ourselves new questions. Is it possible that we only have three basic management paradigms to choose from?


In his efforts to promote financial literacy Mr Kiyosaki makes up his own definitions...

To those who find these two definitions confusing he says: “When I stop working: Assets feed me; Liabilities eat me”

I believe that the same line of thinking could well apply to how we define our social capital as well as our Natural capital. (What are we dealing with? Social assets or social liabilities? Ecological assets or ecological liabilities?)

By having an ever-increasing sector of our community dependent on taxpayer earnings are we favouring social assets or social liabilities?

In the world of finance, Mr. Kiyosaki distinguishes between three distinct “cash flow patterns” (refer to Figure 4).

I believe Mr Kiyosaki implies that each and every financial transaction is favouring one of these patterns.

Figure 4: Cash Flow Patterns
Source: Kachana Pastoral Company

With each dollar we spend we are very effectively voting for one of three management goals: poverty, middle class or wealth. (See figure 5)

Does not the same apply to the time and money we invest in our social asset base? — The raising and educating of the next generation; how we treat our parents and grandparents and fellow citizen; even to how we treat our national trading partners.

Are the patterns or options any different at a biological level? Do an increase in imported nutrients and the desertification of landscapes not indicate management towards poverty? Deserts, on our land surface world wide, are said to be expanding at over 16’000 hectares a day! That is an area the size of Kachana (77’500 ha) taken out of production every five days! An area the size of the Ord River Irrigation Area Stage One (13’000ha in north-western Australia) taken out of production every 19.5 hours. Do we even know what is happening in our marine environments?

Figure 5: Voting with our dollars
Source: Kachana Pastoral Company

Does nutrient production that depends on the burning of fossil fuel and chemical fixes indicate biological assets or biological liabilities? (As Mr. Kiyosaki might suggest: Stop the inputs if you wish to find out...)

Landscapes that have become dependant on humans to apply:

Could well be considered to be ecological liabilities....

Is it possible that while the powers that be, advocate a “Vote for Middle Class” on our behalf, most of our taxpayer earnings fall into the “Vote for Poverty” box?
Attempting to sustain a degraded resource-base is middle-class thinking that emanates from our big city culture (schools, universities and government bureaucracies included).

Figure 6: Australia's Foreign Debt

Is not our whole “sustainability paradigm” (the way that it is currently being preached and embraced), middle class thinking? If we take a look at Australia's national financial performance (refer to Figure 6) from1970 to 2000, one wonders how much longer we as a Nation can afford to attempt to sustain an eroding biological asset base?

According to some scientists, for most of the past 64’000’000 years, biodiversity was on the increase. For this to happen, the nutrient supply of every living species on the planet would surely have been linked into a cyclical pattern associated with “landscape function” and the capture of solar energy. Functional Science indicates that it was only when the net effect of human management began to manifest itself, that all this changed. “Species displacement” would always have been a part of the deal, but the more recent “species extinction” associated with the simplification of “community dynamics” appears to be a human induced phenomenon. (We humans appear to be responsible for a major disruption of the “carbon cycle”.)

Should we not be looking for ways to rebuild and then enhance our ecological asset-base, rather than focus on the conservation of what little biodiversity there is left? Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that Australia's biodiversity began to erode when the first humans took on the management of this continent. Our biological assets have been eroding for a lot longer than 213 years.

Should we humans not be exploring ways to be one of many interacting species in healthy productive landscapes? If we begin soon enough there may still be ways to balance that ecological equation in a manner that is compatible with our desire for comfort.

What is it that has stopped the nutrient production for humans to be a by-product of healthy productive landscapes?

I wish to highlight four questions:

I perceive a fundamental lack of “environmental literacy” amongst our leaders and policy makers to be at the root of what now appears to be a global dilemma. The future not only of Australians, but also of us humans as a species will depend on how we as individuals answer the four questions above and how we vote with every dollar of time, action or money that we spend throughout our lives.

That is democracy in its very essence. It is also real life regardless of which political correctness flavours the day... The counting of votes began long before the information age. I believe that we or at least our immediate progeny will know the conclusive results of this ballot within the next forty years.

Figure 7: The secret ballot that we all use every time we spend

Never in the history of this planet have we had so many voters.

Leaders of legal and legislative processes, leaders in the scientific community and government, leaders in the fields of agriculture, commerce and finance and others who influence the voting now have an unprecedented level of social responsibility.

Whilst as individuals we have limited influence on our leaders we have close to total control of our personal expenditures. Every expenditure that can be reduced to a financial transaction has a hidden implication for the growth/decline of our ecological assets.

Given that our ecological assets are the basis for biological survival perhaps we need to take stock of how we are voting at the moment. (See figure 7)

Few things in Australia are as controversial as bulldozers and fires; we use both to clear land. However, how often do we consider if the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the paper we use come from land that is largely kept bare because of consumer demand and current “best” practice. Could “biodiversity” be one of the keys? Can we even agree on what the word means?

Part Two:


Recently I heard one scientist defining science as a "convincing narrative"..( I can partly accept that definition provided "Nature" gets to tell the story and not some eloquent human. One requirement for this approach to be workable is "environmental literacy"- the capability of humans to "read" (in this case "hear" and evaluate) the signals of Nature within an ecological context. Anything short of that is equal to "environmental journalism"; where the subject matter is observed, reported and seriously analysed, the result of which then serves as a basis for conjecture... or sensation. This sort of process has always been at the disposal of political science (“politically correct science”). This approach now appears to taint the domains of bureaucratic science and academic science.

The word "science" is derived from a Latin word meaning "knowledge". We can define "knowledge" as: a first-hand evaluation of data and experience. The essence of knowledge is "wisdom". Wisdom is about applied knowledge in context. Wisdom serves to enhance the culture it is embraced by.

"Knowledge" is a quantitative term. The gathering of knowledge commonly takes place within or is actively assisted by prevailing paradigms. On the other hand "Wisdom" is a qualitative term. The arrival at wisdom once again commonly takes place within or is actively assisted by prevailing paradigms. Wisdom often discovers and builds on principles that are valid beyond the particular paradigm. A principle once it is recognised is much like a light-house (it will not get out of your way, but it can make navigating easier).

It seems that the prevailing trend of the information-age is to trade in wisdom in exchange for more and more knowledge or data (information). Over thirty years of personal observation lead me to conclude that modern science has become a belief system in “our capacity as humans to understand the world around us".

Some time ago "science" was split up into various disciplines. This happened within a "Paradigm of interconnectedness": components are isolated and the apparent parts are studied. Thus gathered knowledge is then added up in the hope to know more. “More knowledge” however is not necessarily the same as “more understanding” or “more wisdom”.

We have many practical examples of this approach: Michael-Angelo's study of the human anatomy, soil analysis in late twentieth century agriculture, quantum physics, etc... This methodical, logical, but basically mathematically minded approach has served us very well in some areas. In recent decades "chemistry" has also been captured at this level.

Largely due to the promise of new levels of " human comfort", achievable with the sophistication of technology, which in turn was propped up by the availability of fossil fuels (energy originally captured by earlier life forms), more and more mental energy has been directed at increasing this "understanding of how the world works" at the expense of what was happening. The acceptance of a new paradigm (at the time) of "a physical world, rotating around the sun" would have helped fuel this process.

This new "science paradigm" and its associated benefits (for some) was sold to the public mind with "convincing narratives" using plausible physical and mathematical explanations. We have now travelled along that road for about three hundred years.

To consolidate the direction taken we used legislation. Rather than heeding the wisdom of an ancient Chinese proverb: “If you keep on travelling down the road you are on, you will end up where you are heading”, we believed at the time that if we signposted it as a “one-way street” it would lead us quicker to where we wanted to go. Now in the year 2001 A.D. the prevailing paradigm is still one of interconnectedness. Our “belief system” in “our capabilities to understand the world around us”, has been broken up into various disciplines, all of which now study parts, gather knowledge and build another model.

As this taxpayer funded fragmentation proceeds we define new disciplines and redefine some of the old ones.

Perhaps it is the second law of thermo-dynamics applied to our collective mental energy... as a result we find more and more experts knowing more and more about less and less of a particular subject matter until they know absolutely "everything" that there is to know about "nothing"..... (Space.... cyber-space or the tower of Babylon revisited in an attempt to build a "virtual - everything”.... Plato may have been correct after all...)

Nobody will dispute the fact that we are experiencing some spectacular achievements in mathematically calculable domains such as physics, chemistry, space travel, etc... It is however disturbing to witness how this mathematical/linear approach affects the net results produced by colleagues in other disciplines. I refer to those domains of "science" that deal with "life" (animated energy, negentropy, synergy, symbiotic relationships, etc.), areas where "one plus one" can mean "anything" (including two).

Is it human nature that most people prefer to back a "winner"? “Winner” seems to be the title that recent history has bestowed upon "technology" (chemical, mechanical, physical, electrical and more recently electronic know-how). The thought of having found the ultimate winner has by and large penetrated the collective mind of the modern big-city human. This notion fits easily into our comfort-zone, and we can now direct our energies into procuring immediate personal comfort while knowing that the system will insure our future.... life gets faster, but we believe (modern science) we know how to deal with it...

As one by one national economies begin to accept the consequences of dysfunctional environments (ecological or social, mostly both) to be limiting factors, one cannot help but observe that this technology aided "claim" of "comfort" for humans is beginning to restrict the availability of means to satisfy our three basic biological needs (nutrition, water and air).

It is however thanks to the information age and the available levels of technology, that we all now have the opportunity of embracing a global perspective on these issues. We can also thank the information age and the available levels of technology, for the opportunity to access and evaluate other paradigms (including some that may have existed for a long time, but were hidden by political fads). When we take a closer look at the global picture we notice that over 99% of the human population is backing the same "winner", however we notice as clearly that fewer and fewer individuals get to share the winnings. When we look at other participants in this race for "greater understanding" we cannot help but notice that they too are largely attempting to race according to the same set of rules (paradigms).

In their attempt to be "scientific", disciplines that deal with "life" (Biology, sociology, zoology, anthropology etc) have taken everything into the "laboratory" to then propagate their own armies of experts, believing that matched brainpower and matched funding can produce a matched level of performance.

Despite some spectacular failures, those directly responsible continue to place hope in their capacity to achieve spectacular results. Meanwhile the size of their laboratories has grown to include zoos, prisons, family farms, concentration camps, remaining nomadic communities, even "developing" nations (Australia included). Now we have a global “playing-field" supposedly “managed” by social engineers backed by "science" of course, but interestingly enough, disturbingly similar to scenarios predicted by Orwell.

Perhaps the time has come to remind us that when this whole so called "scientific" process began, this planet had not yet seen a human population exceeding a billion individuals. There is also increasing indication that when this "scientific" approach took hold, many terrestrial and aquatic environments on the planet were already dysfunctional and others badly out of balance.

In this light it is therefore hardly surprising that we now need so much energy to search for "base-line data". The dilemma of this pre-programmed failure is generally covered up by searching the records for suitable quotations formulated by peers and the wording of an appropriate disclaimer. It is most unfortunate that so much of our "research" appears to be formatted in a manner to specifically consolidate or enhance the current trend.

Such I believe, is the backdrop that clouds the issue of landscape management both locally as well as internationally.

then, is it possible that our collective human focus so far has prevented us from recognising that the millions of other species on this planet have three similar basic needs for biological survival, but that their desire for "comfort" may be very different to ours, and that if this desire is not fulfilled, their capabilities to "function" in an ecological sense is greatly if not totally reduced?

Part Three:



“Science” was and is obviously a part of the problem. Science however needs to be a part of the solution.

Figure 8: A positive cyclical trend in the flow of mental and financial energy

So long as taxpayer funds are made available, and while academia continues to place value on work that is "new", we favour the current dissipation of wisdom. Young active minds are driven to search for new frontiers in the scientific disciplines they deal with. I am not saying this is bad. In fact I doubt we would get anywhere without it, but it needs to take place in a qualitative context.

"Direction" will always continue to come from the political quadrant. That is where the financial funding comes from. However funding needs to be primarily directed at the functional or practical quadrant (as depicted in Figure 8). There we find social capital but more importantly, the connection to the resource base (natural capital, both physical as well as biological). Here we also have the most direct feedback with regards to the economic feasibility of an action -financially, socially and ecologically. From the functional quadrant energy needs to flow to the bureaucratic quadrant responsible for the collection of appropriate "knowledge". It is the onus of those in the academic quadrant to then evaluate and distil that "knowledge":

With a positive cyclical trend as outlined above and illustrated in Figure 8, those in the political quadrant are then in a better position to produce relevant legislation, monitor for effectiveness and be proactive with their response.

Figure 9:  The trend we see today: an unholy alliance

The trend we witness today is certainly not cyclical. As those who lead the belief (in modern science) make history, the vast majority of humans have no option but to place hope in that belief:

This current trend is well illustrated in Figure 9 depicting the imbalance of an unholy alliance at the expense of both functional science and academic wisdom. Outcomes tend to lack practicality and humanity.

Albert Einstein was to have said: "Religion without science is blindness, and science without religion is deafness..." I wonder, was he perhaps tempted to call those who make "science" their religion, dumb?

There is however some hope....

After a few centuries of expending many of our (natural, social and financial) resources exploring a one-way street, we may yet live to see the acceptance of ecological realities reintegrated into economics. For what I have attempted to outline above is not new thinking by any means.

As Nature continues her push for equilibrium we may find that she is still on our side... if only we give her a chance.

My message is simple, but two-fold:

...however the implications of my message are complex and often challenge our comfort zone.

It will take more than “all the taxes and levies and all the politicians, bureaucrats and power-brokers” to stop Humpty Dumpty from falling…

It will also need ordinary humans and motivated land-managers making informed and holistically sound decisions involving the day to day actions and transactions that either directly or indirectly influence fundamental eco-system function.

If we view our current "nutrient export" activities from an ecological aspect as opposed to a human or industry aspect, we see:

There is hardly call for a skilled business minded person to realise that we still enjoy the flexibility that would allow us to redesign the ecological equation that governs the performance of our nation.

If we were to gradually shift the emphasis from an "export of nutrients and biomass" to an "export of a working knowledge of eco-system management" (so that those nations currently depending on us could eventually sustain themselves) we could direct more energy into the sustaining of locally viable human populations to justify the level of infrastructure required to offer the level of comfort we Australians all aspire. In the process we could nurture our diversity of cultural values and we need not feel threatened by “new” ideas.

I firmly believe, not only we as a Nation, but we as individuals have an opportunity to earn that privilege and then guard it for our descendants.

Referring to Figure 10 the limiting factor as I see it is not sunshine, it does not need to be water and certainly it is not minerals…What I notice is a blatant lack of environmental literacy ranging across our society (from leaders in business, political, legal and education systems, scientists, most of our primary producers, through to our preschoolers). I feel we all need to go back to school and revaluate the basics and then try to “read” the ecological realities confronting us.

Figure 10: “THE ENERGY MAP”
Only healthy productive landscapes will allow more (solar) energy to accumulate in our biological assets.
Management is the key as to what now happens to our potential as well as current solar income.

Australia is arguably the continent on which eco-system function first experienced a major human induced disruption. As a nation we can no longer afford to live with those consequences. We desperately need to rebuild our ecological asset base.

When one observes how the descendants of the first and most probably other pioneers to Australia learned to deal with the situation they inherited and were then able to maintain some sort of basic environmental stability over millennia...

When one sees some of the achievements resulting from the determination, perseverance and innovation of more recent arrivals in Australia demonstrated over the last 213 years...

When one counts the young human lives this nation has both risked as well as sacrificed in the last century alone to ostensibly protect the values we Australians consider worth protecting...

Surely there should be enough "spine" left in us Australians to now in our own right, pioneer a global push for landscape revitalisation whilst rebuilding our ecological asset-base in the process.

Concluding Remarks:

The vital restorative phase required to enhance eco-system function so that our planet may once again sustain a healthy balance of vibrant living communities of organisms (including us humans) will initially need to emphasise a focus on our three basic needs. However with available knowledge and the potential we manage there is no need to neglect the financing of our desire for comfort with a portion of the surplus we can generate.

In the preparing of this paper I have endeavoured to find a balance within the four quadrants depicted in the “info matrix” by challenging the status quo whilst drawing from within both the functional and academic quadrants. Nothing presented in this paper is therefore new except for its context in time and place.

Personal experience and results out in the field fall within the functional quadrant. My schooling, study and language reflect my academic background.

I am thankful for people, places and experiences that have offered me the opportunity to draw from wisdom and insights:

“If you can go to the source, do not grab for the water-jug.” Leonardo da Vinci

Chris Henggeler July 2001