Threatened Australia – The wide bleak land

Threatened Australia – The wide bleak land

Just a few years before heading to Europe to serve with the AIF in 1941, Jock Picks, a young scientist and farmer from South Australia announced in his newly published book “Australia’s Dying Heart – Soil Erosion in the Inland” that “The only aspect of erosion which has not received much attention is the political and social one. I can foresee more difficulty in disentangling the mass of conflicting interests which have their roots in the soil than in the actual physical problems.”

Jock speaks of two major problems. The first one was that the banks and big pastoral companies refused to finance farmers in a way that would allow them to rest parts of a property to enable regrowth and rejuvenation. The second problem is the “social dilemma”, where a city journalist travels in the rural areas following winter rains and writes a glowing report about a ‘rural paradise’ leading all to believe that the world has now been put right. In the meantime, erosion and failing natural landscapes failed to be noticed.

And so it still is today. Living successfully in the Australian environment is beset with “a mass of conflicting interests” and, when winter rains arrive and the parched drought ridden land turns emerald green, we all give a deep sigh of relief, forget the recent drought and fail to notice the still empty dams and reservoirs. Only the few who take a shovel to the soil know that the big dry is still there, just centimetres below that green cover.

What do we really know about our Australia?

So what do we really know about our European footprint on this primitive landscape? Recent TV programs and magazine articles have drawn attention to man’s historic roots from the time humans spread out from Africa. One important message about Australia comes through.

The first people arrived here some 50,000 years ago while the first European settlers in the form of convicts and free settlers, arrived around 200 years ago. The first group, our aboriginal population, was adapted to the Australian environment so that they could live here successfully. The second group, our mob, already adapted to a European climate and landscape, set out to modify the local environment so as to make the continent and its environment adapt to our way of life with our plants and livestock, our settlements and social systems.

Now, with a population of around twenty four million, it might look as though we have succeeded in our efforts. But we also know that Australia is facing challenging environmental problems.

What Jock Picks worried about mostly when he was writing in 1937 were things like the loss of saltbush country from overgrazing and the sinking of thousands of water bores across the outback for sheep and cattle but which also stopped kangaroos migrating to other areas in a drought year. The ‘roos along with the station livestock kept close to the bores and soon wiped out many of the plants that had made it possible to farm there, and this in turn led to desertification and the build up of sand dunes across much of the country. (Today, thousands of feral donkeys, pigs and camels persist where bores still operate.)

In much of the highly productive irrigation farmland and orchards rising salt has rendered the land unsuitable for growing crops of any kind, even pasture.

And now Australians are being told once again about the problems of the Great Barrier Reef and how chemical rich run-off from farms is impacting so disastrously on the corals of the reef. Fertilizers and pesticides in huge quantities are used on crops in Queensland. Ironically, sugar is one of the crops and one has to say ‘how stupid is that?’ Yes, we do need a little sweetener in our lives but not in the quantities we see being produced in Australia. To quote from the website of the Australian Sugar Milling Council:

The Australian sugarcane industry is one of Australia’s largest and most important rural industries with sugarcane being Queensland’s largest agricultural crop. Up to 35 million tonnes of sugarcane is grown on about 380,000 hectares annually. This sugarcane crop can produce up to 4.5 million tonnes of raw sugar, 1 million tonnes of molasses and 10 million tonnes of bagasse annually. Approximately 85% of the raw sugar produced in Queensland is exported, generating up to $2.0 billion in export earnings.

Sugar cane

What a mess! What would Jock Picks think? Just 75 years after his book was published, and while the world suffers obesity and diabetes epidemics and the soft drink companies fence off water supplies from thirsty African villagers to satisfy the need for more sugary drinks, can we really take pride in the idea of trying to adapt the country to suit us? Shipping sugar to a world that surely would be better off without it does not make sense to me.

As Jock said, “I can foresee more difficulty in disentangling the mass of conflicting interests which have their roots in the soil than in the actual physical problems.”

Big business will fight to the end to maintain its existing profitable base using every lobbyist, tame journalist and vulnerable politician in the process. The only glimmer of light in recent times has been investment moves away from cigarettes, alcohol and some fossil fuels. Perhaps there is a clue there to what could be done about sugar to the advantage of the environment and the Great Barrier Reef. But then have you ever tried taking candy away from a child?

Australia’s Dying Heart – Soil Erosion in the Inland by Jock H. Picks, Melbourne 1940 (Available electronically from the National Library of Australia: Trove

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