In my research to complete the assignment for Judith, I stumbled on an article in the Australian Financial Review that is well worth a read. Bob Beale and Mike Archer named it ‘Call of the Wild’ it is a satirical look at what we have done to our land and our depletion of natural resources and talks you through the journey with empirical evidence. Now we all don’t want to have Koala steaks on the BBQ but lets face it, the thousands of generations before us survived on our lands natural resources and sustained the environment supplied by this land.
The article supplements the four strategies discussed in Hawken et al’s Natural Capitalism and the discussions we held in our lecture sessions. There is no doubt that a paradigm shift in thinking is required as a matter of urgency as the need to continually find sources of competitive advantage with sustainable development of our natural resources continues. Call it ecological economics or call it conservation, either way the neoclassical study of ceteris-paribus in economics is over.
Article can be viewed here for AUD$3:30
Or email me for a copy email@example.com
CALL OF THE WILD
Author: Bob Beale and Mike Archer Bob
Beale and Mike Archer are the authors of
Going Native, living in the Australian
environment, published by Hodder Headline
Source: AFR Australian Financial Review
Bob Beale and Mike Archer on the economics of conservation.
Imagine if you went to a friend’s home for Christmas dinner and,
instead of turkey, they served up a piping-hot roasted koala with all
Have you gone off your rocker?! you might splutter in dismay. We
do not eat koalas, do we? They are cute and cuddly and national
icons, not to mention the endangered thing.
Well, yes. And no. Koala won’t feature on the menu in the
foreseeable future but in the not-too-distant past it was a regular.
Australians probably have been enjoying koala meals for many
millennia. No logical reason exists why they could not do so again.
But logic is not what drives our eating choices: if it did, we would
not have an obesity epidemic, nor think it reasonable to import
pickled cumquats from Guatemala.
The evidence suggests that humans were major predators of koalas
for a long, long time. Likewise for kangaroos, possums, goannas,
echidnas or the myriad other species of animals and plants that were
consumed routinely by indigenous Australians.
By all accounts they were well-fed, happy, healthy people who
satisfied their material, medicinal and nutritional needs from the
natural world around them.
And when you compare the human environmental record before and
after European colonisation of Australia, the contrast in outcomes is
so stark, so blindingly obvious, that you cannot escape the
conclusion that it is the modern lifestyle not the ancient one that
belongs in museums.
Let’s state the obvious: from an environmental perspective, the
business-as-usual option plainly was working very well for
Aborigines. They lived successfully and in relatively large numbers
throughout the land for millennia, weathering mega-droughts and
massive sea-level changes in the process.
If you tally up the grand total, taking into account lifestyle,
technology, culture, carrying capacity, generation times and so on,
we reckon that somewhere between 500 million and one billion
people cumulatively lived in Australia in the tens of thousands of
years before Europeans arrived.
In all that time they ate, cut, dug, burnt, hunted, killed, harvested and
culled legions of native plants and animals, and yet they managed
their environmental impact so well that they retained an amazingly
rich variety of habitats and species.
Indigenous peoples who are still hunter-gatherers have a love and
respect for animals, plants and ecosystems that most of us simply
could not understand, because they are still an integral part of the
environments on which they depend. Their attitudes are shaped by
age-old understanding about the need to integrate with and care for
the world that sustains them.
Today, living in increasingly detached and de-natured cities, most
Australians have lost that sense of fundamental linkage and
integration: we have erected physical and psychological fences
between us and the bush, the wild things.
Whatever the relative merits of this modern lifestyle, its
consequences have been severe for the natural world. The businessas-
usual option we have been following plainly is not working.
We won’t depress you by recounting the nation’s many
environmental woes. They are well known, great in scale and
looking more and more like they will need remedies on the scale of a
national war effort. Far too few of our community leaders seem to
even recognise that, let alone show an appropriate sense of urgency
and gravity about it.
The Hawke government’s “One Billion Trees” program seemed at the
time to be an audacious bid to break the mould, yet it barely tickled
the sides of the need for a national revegetation scheme on degraded
rural lands, where perhaps 30 billion new trees are needed.
The Howard government has tossed bucketloads of green cash into
the Natural Heritage Trust, funded by the part-sale of Telstra, but
that has not even halted the loss of species diversity, the rising tide of
soil salinity and the degradation of our major river systems, let alone
reversed these sorry trends. To have a chance of doing that, over the
next decade the government would need to spend something like $60
billion above the amount of spending it pledged for other things
during the last federal election campaign.
While we applaud all the good work and enthusiasm, and shudder to
think what things would have been like without them, the many
conservationists, Landcare groups, academics, home recyclers,
philanthropists, policy-makers, professional agitators and bush
regenerators haven’t yet even come close to nailing the core problem.
Protecting old-growth forests, tackling urban air pollution, recycling,
preservation of rare and endangered species, and so on are
praiseworthy causes in themselves.
What matters much more, though, is the central issue of how we
make our living from the land.
Australia’s efforts to conserve or protect nature in national parks and
reserves are too disjointed and inadequate. They have no cohesive
ecological basis as a network and many were simply determined by
lines on maps, the leftovers humans couldn’t find a more profitable
The protected lands strategy is not having the wins that its advocates
hoped or expected, nor is it stopping the rot. To do better, innovative,
compatible initiatives that could increase the conservation capacity
of private land need to be sought out.
Our agricultural systems therefore pose a substantial challenge and a
dilemma. They occupy 60 per cent of the continent and we need to
increase their capability for conservation-compatible activities, yet
they are at the root of most of the damaging processes that are
degrading our soils, rivers, native forests, woodlands, grasslands,
wetlands and biodiversity.
This is not to put the boot into farmers and graziers. They have
worked miracles of efficiency and they certainly did not set out with
the intention of causing environmental harm. More often than not,
they have cleared, altered and exploited the continent’s native
ecosystems at the behest or with the blessing of governments and the
broader community, who were happy to share in the bounty that
came off the land.
Although they still play a central role in the nation’s social and
economic life, our farms, cropping lands and grazing zones are
contributing less and less to our wellbeing and they are becoming
Since 1932, the number of Australians employed on them has
plunged from 31 to four out of every 100 people. While efficiency
gains were spectacular in the post-war era and the gross value of
agricultural production is still very large, its net value has fallen well
Farm costs have risen 14 times since 1960 to $26 billion but the
gross value of farm produce has risen only 11 times, to about $30
billion. Yet that apparent net yield of roughly $4 billion is illusory,
because it does not include environmental costs. Land degradation
alone is costing us about $5 billion a year: in other words, we may be
in the red.
Most rural landholders are far more aware of and sensitive to the
results of our mistakes than their city cousins. Farmers have also
shown far more willingness to be inventive than many of their
counterparts in industry and manufacturing as they try to develop
new products, new production methods and seek out new markets.
But our agricultural economy is still too narrowly based on the dozen
or so species of plants and a half-dozen species of animals that came
with the First Fleet. That makes it highly vulnerable to shocks,
whether they result from climate change, market forces, invading
pests and diseases or political whim. It needs far more resilience, if
only in the interests of national security.
Every one of the core species we farm, from wheat to chickens, is
also an exotic, an organism that evolved somewhere else.
How was it that imported agriculture was able to transplant itself so
dominantly here with so few domesticated species to build on?
American historian Alfred Crosby has argued the answer lies at least
partly in the demographic takeover by the whole package of living
things that came with the European empire builders in so many parts
of the world not just the pliable domestic animals and crops carefully
developed over thousands of years as the backbone of agricultural
economies, but the legions of pests, pathogens, pets, predators and
prey that came along.
They are the often overlooked and often grossly underestimated
agents of imperial power. The Europeans came, as Crosby so
colourfully puts it, with a grunting, lowing, neighing, crowing,
chirping, snarling, buzzing, self-replicating and world-altering
And the takeover in gardens and farms continues today, with new
species and microbes coming in all the time through the pet trade and
as a result of quarantine lapses, by international travel, migratory
birds the points of entry are many. It is a border security issue every
bit as serious and important, if not more so, as the terrorist threat,
illegal drugs and illegal immigrants.
The ecological mayhem wrought by invading exotic species is one
thing, but there is a growing recognition that this land in particular is
poorly suited to the core species of the imported agricultural system
We often hear that Australian farmers imposed a European
agriculture completely unsuited to Australian soils and climate,
observes John Williams, a member of the Wentworth Group of
Concerned Scientists and a former chief of CSIRO Land and Water.
This is not entirely fair. All human societies that have forsaken a
hunter-gatherer existence have based their civilisations on annual
seed-bearing plants such as wheat, rice and maize. It is not the
European heritage of agriculture that is at odds with this land, but the
replacement of native perennial plants with annuals.
Annual plants adopt a canny strategy: they match their life cycles as
closely as possible with favourable growing conditions and survive
unfavourable times as seed, Williams points out. That made them
very attractive for domestication because large seeds not only favour
their survival but yield a plentiful human food supply.
Perennial plants, on the other hand, cannot match this bountiful yield
of edible products. Their strategy is to stay alive through hard times,
sending down deep roots to tap groundwater supplies and forming
woody stems to lift themselves above their annual competitors.
Because they also face sustained pressure from grazing animals,
insects and parasites, perennials must divert precious resources from
new growth to self-defence toxic chemicals, thorns and so on which
means the proportion of harvestable material from perennials is
much smaller than that from annuals.
Annuals are wasteful of water typically, 5 to 15 per cent of all the
rain that falls on annual crops leaks into the water table below,
whereas miserly perennials let less than 1 per cent escape. It is the
leaky nature of Australian agriculture that is the source of its large
and growing problems with salinity, says Williams.
Likewise, our hard-hoofed grazing animals compact the surface of
soils that once boasted an open, porous humus layer and was
frequently turned over and kept open by legions of small digging
It has taken a long time more than two centuries but Australia is now
showing many signs of ecologically rejecting the imperial transplant.
Its immune system is responding spectacularly in some cases: and it
is often not pretty.
So let’s join all the dots here. Agriculture as usual is not working.
Conservation as usual is not working. Both need a fundamental shift
in direction, and because we need to factor in a long period of
climate change and global-scale ecological instability both need to be
made much more resilient.
So what can we do about all this? In some cases, not much: a vast
ecological experiment has been set in train, with no plan and no clear
end point in sight and the complexities of how it all is likely to play
out are too great for anyone to accurately predict.
What we can say, though, is that if the initial goal was to try to
Europeanise the continent’s agricultural zones, one sure-fire remedy
is to Australianise them again. We will never be able to re-create the
Australia of old the imperial genie is well and truly out of the bottle
but we can aim to integrate many more native species into rural
economies and agricultural production systems: they have a pedigree
tried and tested by nature’s continuing research and development
program to be specifically suited to local conditions.
We can and should do likewise, of course, in our cities and suburban
backyards. In each case, it will surely yield not only ecological gains
but bolster resilience and human wellbeing on both sides of the
At heart, though, we humans do not tend to conserve or sustain what
we do not value. And we do not even know about the existence of
most species, let alone value them. We tend to concentrate only on
those that we find useful or pleasing in some way.
Chickens, cows, dogs and cats, potatoes, rice and cotton can by no
stretch of even the most fertile imagination be considered
So how can we add similar value to plants and animals that are not
thought of in that way?
Economists are busy studying one theoretical approach, which is to
try to put a dollar value on ecosystem services. It has been estimated,
for example, that bees provide about $1 billion worth of pollination
services each year to Australia.
Promoting ecotourism is another pro-conservation initiative that will
be important and effective in this context. Ecotourism is driven and
maintained by economic incentives for the landholder and tour
operator. Without a healthy environment there is no eco to tour.
A recent study of the impacts of the 1.6 million visitors a year to the
Great Barrier Reef, for example, indicated that tourism is
increasingly helping to safeguard it, especially through a growing
ethic of reef protection among those dependent on tourism
economically the reef now generates $1.5 billion in annual income
and extensive foreign investment.
These relatively non-controversial, compatible conservation
strategies are not, however, the only ones that should be on the
Hearkening back to indigenous strategies with long-term
conservation benefits, both here and overseas, we strongly advocate
exploring the potential advantages of sustainably harvesting, hunting
and even farming of native wildlife and plants.
The modern Australian focus on this strategy has been pioneered by
many people in recent decades. Grahame Webb, director of Wildlife
Management International, has promoted and put into practice
sustainable harvesting programs focused on native species, such as
the saltwater crocodile.
Webb argues that conservation through sustainable use, is just
another conservation strategy an additional tool that can be used by
wildlife managers to solve wildlife conservation problems. It is
particularly well-suited to enhancing conservation on private or
communal lands outside of national parks, reserves and protected
Killing or eating wildlife to save it may sound counterintuitive, but
would two of our most remarkable native birds the mallee fowl and
the giant bustard be facing oblivion if we served them up for
Christmas dinner instead of Asian chicken and North American
turkey? The saltwater crocodile story makes the point that sensible
and well-managed conservation, farming and hunting policies can
secure a species and its habitat.
After World War II, inadequate regulation of hunting, habitat change
and a lack of perceived value in the animal itself caused a precipitous
decline in the crocodile population in northern Australia.
By 1971, less than 5000 were left and conservationists were
sounding the alarm. As a result, the Northern Territory enacted
protection for the species. When the population had recovered
significantly, the goals of management changed from strict
protection to sustainable use.
By the early 1980s, crocodile farming, which allowed for the
collection of wild eggs and young to be raised in captivity for
commercial purposes, was approved. Landowners were paid for eggs
taken from their lands and for some, the net return since the program
started has been over $100,000.
Crocodiles now represent a significant commercial asset to those
taking part. Some have built incubators, collect the eggs and sell the
hatchlings directly to the farms.
By 1997, the wild crocodile population had soared to between
60,000 and 70,000: it had gone from rare to common in less than
Private landowners have become part of a new industry and the
ecosystems on which crocodiles depend have won new-found
protection on private lands. As well, crocs are now the unquestioned
star attractions of the NT’s $1 billion a year tourist industry.
We see no reason why well-regulated sustainable trophy-hunting of
these animals cannot be considered now as a long-term and lucrative
component of the management equation.
If one native animal stands out as a bountiful and valuable source of
meat it is the kangaroo. Soft-footed, adapted to drought and already
the booming beneficiary of the extensive water and grass resources
introduced to support sheep and cattle, roo provides an excellent,
It has great consumer appeal as being lean, low in cholesterol, tasty,
free-range and organic, with a proven safe track record of human
consumption. Instead of being treated as a pest, it should be
harvested for its environmental value as sheep replacement therapy
(roos need remnant bush maintained, for example, for refuge) and as
an extra revenue source for producers. The industry has a solid 30-
year track record.
The point is not to find human food value in everything native, rather
in a few relatively robust species that can sustainably provide an
economic incentive to repair and secure more native bush that in turn
sustains countless other species in the process.
Many native plants have potential value as foods, flavourings, fibres,
medicines or as the basis of industrial products and processes.
Australia has scores of superb native flowers, for example, yet we
account for only about one-tenth of the $500 million annual global
trade in these species. Peru last year exported more Australian
flowers than we did. Colombia supplies kangaroo paws to the US
market. France grows wattle blossom for European buyers.
Many wonderful native plant foods await further exploration and
development: the delicious blueberry-like fruits of midyim
(Austromyrtus dulcis), bunya pine seeds, native figs, Davidson’s
plum, bush tomatoes, quandongs, lilly pilly, wild limes, native
raspberries, native cherries, kangaroo apple, native currants, bush
banana, yams, jungle plum, native gooseberry, the red wild apple,
wild prune, the root of the native carrot, tubers of blue water lilies
and many more the list is delightfully long and regularly added to by
the many pioneers in this small but growing field.
There is a home-grown cultural cringe to overcome. We find it
galling, for example, that Australia, the home of the gum tree,
imports eucalyptus oil from Portugal, or that Brazil has many times
more gum trees in plantations for timber and paper pulp than
The potential for forestry based on native trees alone is massive.
Providing that we do not clear remnant bush to plant these forests, it
should not be beyond our collective wit to find new ways to create
plantations of native trees that operate more like analogues of real
native forests, supporting a diversity of other species in the process.
Wheatgrowers in Western Australia are pioneering one element of
that concept. They are replanting tens of millions of the mallee
bushes originally cleared from their land in a bold plan to tackle
salinity problems and to harvest the trees for multiple uses.
They plan to produce eucalyptus oil from the leaves as an industrial
solvent, to generate renewable energy as a by-product of the
distillation process, to yield activated carbon from the woody stems
for water and waste filtration, and to sell carbon credits in the big
woody underground mallee roots.
If Australia were to switch to ethanol-based fuel for transport, up to
1000 processing plants could be built in rural and regional Australia
to process the billions of native plants that would need to be grown
as the renewable sources of biomass to produce the ethanol.
One analysis has suggested that this step would create up to 50,000
jobs where they are sorely needed in rural and regional Australia,
with another 200,000 involved in the transport and processing side of
As for cropping native plants, nature writer Eric Rolls has pointed
out that there are potential grain candidates among the native grasses.
Wild-growing curly Mitchell grass (Astrebla lappacea), for example,
was described by one early observer as having ears nearly six inches
long, well-filled with a clean-looking firm grain, and was probably
used as a wheat substitute by settlers and to supplement meagre
rations of flour during World War II.
Native millet (Panicum decompositum) and oat grass (Themeda
avanacea) may have the potential to be broadacre-farmed. Ted
Lefroy, a CSIRO plant scientist, leads a research project to
domesticate a perennial Australian grass that he believes will be
commercially viable and environmentally sustainable for cropping
and grazing across some 3 million hectares of Australia.
“We’re not proposing to replace wheat and barley”, says Lefroy.
“Rather, we want a crop that would be suited to some 10 per cent of
land under grain that is returning low yields marginal land that’s
prone to erosion or leaks a lot of water. We looked for high seed
yield, large seed size and erect habit on short stalks, and found it in a
variety of weeping grass, Microlaena stipoides.”
Incidentally, why do wildlife authorities make it so hard to keep
native animals as pets, when it is so easy to keep the exotic ones that
do so much damage to native wildlife, such as cats and dogs?
Permits, applications, red tape, prohibitions many barriers are put in
the way to discourage it, including hefty fines and even jail terms.
Mitchell’s hopping mouse once abundant in NSW but now extinct
there is a gorgeous little critter, ideal as a child’s pet.
The beautiful little sugar glider has its own appreciation societies in
the US, where tens of thousands of them are privately owned and are
known as pocket pets.
Quolls once called native cats are on a slippery slope towards
extinction, yet they make excellent companion animals.
Why aren’t we actively encouraging trials of such species as
replacement therapy for guinea pigs and moggies? Wouldn’t the
existence of thousands of pampered quolls in suburban homes be an
insurance policy against their disappearance from the wild? Would it
be so bad if they escaped into the bush and went feral?
We restate the point that no plant or animal species valued by
humans as a food source, for materials or as a companion has gone
We urgently need to learn that lesson: use it or lose it. Fence off the
crown jewels of nature by all means, but protection alone doesn’t
really work in the long-term. Careful exploitation, sustainable
harvesting, or whatever jargon you choose, might do a whole lot
The key to success is to recognise that reliance on one landuse
strategy alone, no matter how venerable, will not achieve the broader
goals of ecological, economic and social sustainability.
Australia does not have remotely enough land for effective long-term
conservation now within protected areas, no matter what
management strategy they employ.
We are more likely to win the conservation game by using multiple,
The key change needed, we believe, is to recognise afresh the many
values of native plant and animal resources, then to find ways to
sustainably utilise some of them to value-add to agricultural incomes
and, in the process, increase the conservation capacity of that same
You probably do not want to hunt crocodiles. And you cannot serve
up koala or bustard for Christmas dinner, yet.
But you could chuck some roo fillets on the barbie, spiced with
Dorrigo mountain pepper or flavoured with Queensland lemon
myrtle. Serve it up with some delicious roasted native macadamia
nuts and warrigal greens, our own native spinach. And you could
finish with some wattleseed ice-cream.
Bet you did not know that wattleseed has three times more protein
than wheat, more fibre than lentils and more ah, but that is another
story for the future.