I miss the urgency at our organisation

Published 25 Feb 2014 
the big wet 2011<br/> the big wet 2011
the big dry 2009<br/> the big dry 2009
the next big dry 2013<br/> the next big dry 2013

It has only just sunk in: It’s 2014 already. It has been 14 years since we moved into the new century. Ten years since Bush Heritage Australia set up the Judith Eardley Reserve, later to become part of the larger Nardoo Hills. It was around that time that global warming started to become a mainstream topic and also when we first started fantasising on how a new dawn of environmental awareness was now nearly upon us.

The signs were good, positive action was gaining momentum. People who were still driving V8s a few years earlier were now questioning consumption levels, there was talk of biofuel coops, an upswing in the polls for the Greens. The volume of trade in the Australian voluntary carbon market had doubled five times in only three short years. Organic products were introduced on Coles’ and Woolworths’ shelves. BHA bought new land at a rapid rate, we were saving the planet singlehandedly, and we were in this super-optimistic buzz. Do you remember those days? The new environmental age was upon us, we were on a cusp to something really really good.

It wasn’t to be. Being on the cusp of a breakthrough turned out not to be enough. In 2014 environmental awareness has gone backwards for the fourth year in a row. Environmental concern did not play a part in the last federal elections and is not considered an important issue by the voters in the upcoming South Australian or Tasmanian elections.

In the meantime, the mining, hunting, cattle, cat, car, coal, horse, irrigation farming and other lobby groups have successfully manoeuvred themselves into positions of influence within the federal and state governments as well as both the Labor and Liberal parties. They’ve also been very successful in strengthening their foothold in the Australian media and have even brazenly bought their way into publishing and broadcasting.

So we find ourselves in this dire situation whereby all science tells us the environment is going backwards fast, while all political decisions in this country go against environmental concerns. This means that the ticking of the doomsday clock of environmental collapse has increased rapidly, while  action to ameliorate the effects of the decline has slowed. In 2014 we have to admit that as it currently stands, the environment movement in Australia is losing. Collectively, as a movement, we are not doing enough, or we are not effective enough, to stop the decline of biodiversity levels on this continent (as outlined by Tim Flannery in his piece for the Quarterly Essay last year).

Yes, we have scored goals and yes, we have made some advances. We have gained world heritage status for additional land in Tasmania, we have revegetated more land in Victoria than what has been lost in clearing, we have set up new private reserves in Queensland and WA and we have booked some progress on some threatened species nationally.

But at the same time, we have experienced (and still are experiencing) a collapse of mammals all throughout the North with some reports suggesting we have lost 80% of numbers in Kakadu in the last 10 years, we are seeing a collapse of fish stocks with a dramatic decline in large fish, including crayfish, along all of Australia’s coast.

We have had the Labor Party opening the Tarkine to mining, we have the Queensland government reintroducing land clearing to make way for Clive Palmer’s largest coal mines in the world, we have had both major parties giving the green light for the industrialisation of the Great Barrier Reef with the development of Gladstone and Abbott Point coal terminals.

We are experiencing unprecedented pressure on the Kimberleys, the Alpine National Park in Victoria, and the national parks in outback Queensland for industrial developments and grazing access. We have had illegal dumping of toxic sludge on the Barrier Reef by Clive Palmer and the constant leaking of radioactive waste water into Kakadu at the Ranger Mine without even a hint of protest by the general public. In the meantime, inaction on climate change by the relevant authorities plus a sharp increase in coal exports do not appear to have any influence on the polls. The Australian public is saying it is not interested.

With all this in mind the following questions become unavoidable: Where is all this going to lead? And how fast are we going to get there?

When we first all became aware of environmental issues for most of us it seemed a long-term issue, something we felt responsible for, but with which we wouldn’t be confronted ourselves, we were concerned for the future of the planet, our grandchildren, not for ourselves. Also, when we first became aware of global warming we thought this might become a pressing issue in 2100 or so.

A fundamental shift is happening in all predictions regarding climate, biodiversity, food and water security and subsequently the economy. Most peer reviewed modelling reports coming out now suggest we will start being directly impacted much sooner than first anticipated. If there is anything we would like to do to prepare for these impacts we are now advised we should have these preparations completed by the end of this decade or early in the twenties.

So when we do our planning and we talk about things like “building resilience in the landscape” we are talking about something we need to have done by the time it gets to 2018-2022 or so.

Four to eight years from now. This is the time it takes an average Eucalyptus to grow from a sapling to a small tree, with average rainfall (if the sapling doesn’t die in a heatwave at first attempt, in which case you’re a year behind from the start). It takes about 50 years for a revegetated patch of Victorian woodland to regain the majority of its ecological functions, and 350 years to reach maturity and all of its functions. Just to give some context on timeframes here.

So we have 4 to 8 years to turn around the Australian declining biodiversity trend that exists today as the impacts of global warming, population growth, international biodiversity decline, etc etc start to put the thumbscrews on. That goes for the entire environment movement in this country. All together we have this short bit of time to get something substantial done, while the public is apathetic and the governments are hostile.

I don’t think we are looking at our work at Bush Heritage Australia from this angle. I think it would be wise if we would start to look at our work from this angle. I think we are too risk averse at the moment and we seem to be stymied by an urge for perfectionism that dictates we can’t do anything until we know for certain it is going to be super solid. I am speaking up on behalf of rushed jobs.  I miss the sense of urgency at our organisation.

the big wet 2011<br/> the big wet 2011
the big dry 2009<br/> the big dry 2009
the next big dry 2013<br/> the next big dry 2013