Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Why we needed and need an “Australian Treaty” or a boycott of Australian farming

This morning, I found the alarming news that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have soared by 82 percent since 1990. This is far above the appalling eight percent increase allowed under the Kyoto Protocol - let alone the 99 percent reduction without any reductions abroad that would have been required under a rational treaty.

Although it took me a very long time to realise how unsustainable farming Australia's Paleozoic-age soils actually is, the revelation that most of Australia’s greenhouse emissions come either from land clearing or bushfires shows that perhaps directing pressure totally at the car and fossil fuel industries is wrong. Instead, we need to pressure for a large-scale revegetation of Australia’s farmland and a really radical transformation of southern Australia’s economy from farming-based to ecotourism-based. Under the likely disappearance of the winter rainfall zone and drying of the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers, Australia would have the following alternatives:
  1. find another source of irrigation water, which could be either desalination or pipelines from the always well-watered and increasingly wet north of Australia.
  2. convert what was once relatively intensive farming to the type of low-intensity cattle rearing historically found in central and northern Australia
  3. do nothing and allow the area to become the same type of desert wasteland found in the interior of Western Australia
None of these would avoid the huge costs in species loss and carbon absorption that a poleward expansion of twenty degrees in the edge of the Hadley circulation (which marks the maximally arid latitude) would produce.

In contrast, a genuine effort to revegetate southern Australia’s farmland would at least reduce the extent of species loss and, judging by what the Age said today, do a great deal to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions. In my opinion, there is no limit to the extent to which we should revegetate southern Australia’s farms. Being invariably on extremely old soils severely deficient in phosphorus, nitrogen and trace elements, and often toxic in salt, they are suitable for agriculture only with the development of advanced machinery and fertilisation. Moreover, Australia’s Paleozoic-era soils are a strictly non-renewable resource quite different from the very young soils of Eurasia, the Americas, New Zealand or even East Africa. This means that, even with strictly organic methods, farming in Australia is not as sustainable as in those regions, especially when one factors in the carbon storage of native flora adapted to the poor soils.

More than that, the extreme efficiency and cheapness of Australian farming causes a situation where traditional cultures elsewhere in the world cannot survive. The suicidally low fertility rates in Eurasia, most of the Americas, and New Zealand are a reflection of the way traditional farming communities, even if culturally often flawed, have dissipated and been replaced by crowded, noisy cities whose effect is to create a radically materialist and self-centred culture quite unlike Australia’s spacious suburbs where families can quietly grow. Were Australia’s farmland revegetated, there would be tremendous opportunities to reverse this process and in doing so save ecologically critical land, especially in southwestern Western Australia where winter rainfall has declined by 40 percent compared to 1885 to 1967 averages.

We should undoubtedly set a goal of all southern Australia’s farmland being revegetated merely as a precaution against likely rainfall declines. However, the problem is that the government, deprived of agricultural exports, may not have nearly enough money to pay by itself for such an immense long-term project - no matter how ecologically essential it is.

In this context, we have two choices:
  1. to campaign for an international “Australian Treaty” to make sure that Australia’s farmland is revegetated. Such a treaty is far more justifiable ecologically than the 1959 Antarctic Treaty (now celebrated as a landmark) which protected a continent whose immense ice cover makes any economic activity incredibly inefficient and whose absence of native biodiversity makes the actual cost thereof low. In theory, an "Australian Treaty" would be a very good idea, for it would preserve something immeasurably more necessary than the Antarctic Treaty and give economic opportunities to use the only natural resource of most Eurasian and North American nations. In practice, however, Australia's political power internationally and the difficulty of outsiders enforcing an "Australian Treaty" is overwhelming
  2. for people abroad to consciously avoid buying Australian farming products and recognising that, even if they are cheap, they are produced at an unacceptable ecological cost. This idea has been put forward (without knowing the best reason) by extreme conservatives, and they are to be credited for realising that local family agriculture is the only defence against demographic decline. If combined with a real understanding of how ecologically destructive farming in Australia is and efforts by parents to show how radically different soils in Australia are from those in other developed nations, such a boycott could serve to limit Australia’s farming exports and encourage innovation taken for granted overseas. The problem with this method is that it does not address Australia’s superabundant mineral resources and resultant overpopulation, and the dependence even of locally-centred people on these minerals. This could even encourage more overpopulation in Australia as its farms increasingly feed a local population.
Combining these two strategies is this a worthy goal, but a key is undoubtedly shutting down the fertilisers that allow for Australia’s super-cheap, but unsustainable, farming. This is itself problematic and needing more attention as an issue.

1 comment:

HMS said...

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