Category Archives: Farming

A Viking Legacy and Australian Cuisine

A perspective piece I wrote for the Solutions Journal has now been published.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond provides us a chilling historical anecdote of the Greenland Vikings: faced with an increasingly harsh climate in the early fifteenth century, a large swath of the population died out from starvation. Greenland Inuit, however, continued to live during this period. Unlike the Vikings, they harbored no cultural taboo restricting them from eating fish, which remained abundant as the climate became too cold for the grazing herds maintained by Vikings.

In very much the same way, cultural preferences in Australia, concurrent with changes in climate, may limit local capacity to maximize long-term prosperity. So-called heritage preferences livestock—that is, cattle and sheep—are resource-intensive species. With increasing anthropogenic climate change, the cost of this investment may prove too much to sustain Australian populations, just as natural changes in climate proved too much for Greenland Vikings.

Read more here.

How Not to ‘Save the World’

Some months ago, a senior academic and I talked as we drove the many hours to the project site. He was informing me on his views regarding invasive species, some of which I thought were questionable.

To clarify, I bluntly asked, “What do you think we should do with weeds?”

He replied, with all the authority that he could muster, “Get rid of them.”

I didn’t pursue the conversation any further at that point. I knew from experience that the tone was one baiting me into a debate. I’m usually all for a debate, where I see value. In this case however, the individual is one who likes the fight more than a resolution and I’m not really one for that.

It’s a nice idea to remove weeds and certainly not impossible… as long as you throw enough money at the problem. This is where the environmental debate fails all the time.

It could be in discussions regarding invasive species management, limiting the impact of pollution or even climate change. Whatever the subject, for the most part, we can eventually achieve the currently unthinkable if only we wish to drain enough resources into it.

Those who fall prey to sci-fi resolution to problems, starting the discussion not unlike an Arthur C. Clark story, imagining the problem is soon to be resolve and the discussion should be about what this means for us, just like the environmental romantic, are victims to the results, without object rational on how to reach them.

An excellent example in Australia is the olive. How much money should we spend on managing olives in natural landscapes when the recruitment of these comes from dedicated plantation? I once refused to buy Australian olives for this reason, but is such a protest of any value?

Am I giving up?

This isn’t to be confused with environmental defeatism that Bjørn Lomborg tries to pass off as realism.

Let’s put it this way; it’s not impossible to rebuild your house to correct all the problems, but can you really afford to do so, or does it make more sense to allocate some of your money to repair what you have?

The olive is an assimilated immigrant to Australia. It has its place now in the local culture and environment (is that cringing I hear?).

To this realisation we have two general options that have their relative expenses; we could “get rid of it”, which would close down the industry and outlaw all trees in backyards and public parks as well; or, we give it a citizenship, acknowledging it as a productive food source well suited to Australia in a warming climate.

The former would require a major PR campaign and many years of eradication and monitoring. The latter would likely see us not managing it as a weed, but rather as new competition to endemic species with the aim of promoting biodiversity which would include this new “local”. This would require effort and research.

Paved in good intentions

Environmental discourse has been plagued with romanticism or an unrealistic impression of “indestructibility” ever since the notion that it was a topic worth discussing became established.

The worst part is not that those who discuss environmental management most passionately are the most likely to fall into such a trap while those least likely will typically reject concern altogether, but rather that there is this line drawn in the sand between both extremes.

Either your hopelessly infatuated with a resilient (or fragile) Earth or concede that such musings are little more than a “liberal conspiracy”.

Where is the possibility to even start to discuss the place of the “Australian olive” for instance, in such an absurd and naïve situation?

To Get rid of it?

Over the last century, the Australian government and landholders has spent countless hours and dollars in management of the rabbit. This has included a 1700km rabbit-proof fence (build between 1901-07), two different viruses, warren destruction, chemical control and even explosives (read more here). Even while the most recent virus was having its greatest impact (1998-2003) the management cost for feral rabbits was estimated to be around $1 million (more here).

Yet, I see bunnies throughout Melbourne and right up to central NSW on a daily basis.

Yes, something must be done and our efforts have had an impact, but how much really? We can’t rebuild the house, but equally, electrical tape over the tap isn’t going to stop the leak.

Out with the old

The olive and the rabbit are not good comparisons. Olives will forever spread while they are being farmed where ol’ bugs just has a thing for breeding prolifically.

The point is that the current attitudes and strategies do not reflect the realistic capacities of management options and beneficial outcomes. I’m tired of the blanket eradication message where the reality continually fails to meet the target. I’m just as tired of the dismissal scoffs of the other side of the discussion.

We need approach species management with fresh eyes and very likely, different goals. The promotion of biodiversity would be an excellent target. The promotion of productive ecosystems which thrive while providing services to urban landscapes would be another one.

In short, there is nothing ignoble in rethinking our relationship with other life and in designing ecosystems with which our landscapes actively interact. To be absolutely frank, there is no other multi-cellular organism as invasive as ourselves, but at least we have the capacity to promote ecosystems, rather than out compete all else until we are the last one standing should we choose to.

We need a new dialogue willing to step back, compromise or actively engage where it is needed, without unrealistic ideation or denial. This will start with an internal look on ourselves and our place within ecosystems.


About Moth
Situated in Victoria, Australia, I have a background in ecology, atmospheric / meteorological monitoring and analysis as well as web / graphic design. On New Anthropocene, my main interest is scientific accuracy and arguing for sound policies so that we can hope to obtain the best quality lives for our species. My work is entirely my own and does not reflect that of my employer nor does it endorse a particular political party. Please read my full statement for further information.

Wishful thinking over good governance: how the new government will avoid effort

A shorthand discussion on the excellent article I reposted from The Conversation yesterday is; does current forested areas balance our GHG emissions?

No.

Well, why should we think of this as our ‘saving grace’?

The Coalition is focused entirely upon sequestration. My guess is that, to a casual observer, it seems reasonable, but of course requiring as little effort on the behalf of the government as possible. It’s a lazy policy.

If you want to find a cure, rather than work on prevention, as this new government wishes to do, as always, there are no easy options and it is always the most time and financially expensive option.

Firstly, mature forests are close to carbon neutral; if they are neither growing nor shrinking, the carbon balance stays close to constant. Secondly, as stated above, standing forests are by no means meeting human GHG emissions currently. The only option that makes sense is to continually increase forested areas and, to avoid maturity, keep impacting on it, that is harvest.

This is why I focused on forestry in my analysis of the Direct Action Plan. The only way to harvest carbon from the atmosphere is to actively, well, harvest it. To increase the carbon sink the only option is, well, increase it. Using sequestration is not the cheap, passive option.

Bleeding obvious stuff, but something no-one is talking about.

Assuming that Australian annual emissions stopped growing in 2010 (which it didn’t), this amounted to carbon farming equivalent to increasing annual wood production by an additional 300% under the most optimistic assumptions by 2020, to meet the Coalition’s targets.

Planting a few trees or saving some patches of forest isn’t a climate mitigation option. It will be marginal at best.

In reality this “cure” approach is a massive, endless, industry and one with little financial incentive (noting that the carbon needs to remain “locked” in this wood production). This is why you don’t see any policy, outside the Australian Coalition, placing sequestration as a primary climate change mitigation strategy.

The primary focus that seems to hold the most weight is one of punishment. Where there is a cost, people tend to be more thoughtful with their use of the resource. Moreover, if there is an inherent cost to carbon emissions, low carbon options become more competitive, introducing new markets.

This is what I would call direct.

But Australia voted against the obvious.

All Terrain Gas Analyser System (A.T.G.A.S.)

A little something I finished putting together for a PhD student. We borrowed the chamber, but if I were to build one from scratch, I’d make the chamber a little differently, minimising the production further.

The Ord River: the unlucky horse shoe in the Coalition’s northern development

Firstly, I have to thank my readers. My previous post, The Great Northern Development: the Coalition’s dead horse, did extremely well. I’ve never had a post that has caught such traction, so thank you to everyone who has shared it via report, twitter, facebook, email, whatever. It’s rewarding to know that my efforts are not in vain.

Yet one criticism has crept up over and over again; I’m ignoring the Ord River Irrigation Area. The commentators think I’m dead wrong, based entirely on this point and so, I figured it was worth writing a detailed reply post.

While I admit that my local knowledge of northern Australia between Cairns and Broome is limited (not a small area, by any means), I know enough about remote sensing, climate and ecology to feel my analysis remains correct.

Productivity

Ecology demonstrates that where there is a resource, species move in to exploit it. Even warm springs full of chemicals that are toxic to most life can be abundant with activity – just look at Yellowstone Park.

The advocates of the northern development talk of the north as being “underdeveloped” and this River Irrigation Area being shockingly impressive for soil quality.

But microbe and plants never organised committees or governments to decide where they will set up home, they do so and to population sizes that the environment allows.

Looking at gross or net primary productivity gives us an idea of how productive an environment is, obviously. Apart from eastern Queensland and the top of the Northern Territory, much of this northern development region has a productivity akin to that of the dry land irrigation regions in southern Australia. Of course, it also lacks the accommodating mild climate of the south as well.

Using the MODIS GPP image, we have the existing Australian food baskets in the south – largely Victoria, Eastern NSW and the southern tip of WA – with a value greater than 0.03; a value this wonderful northern region simply does not reach anywhere.

Gross Primary Productivity - MODIS, LPDAAC MOD17A2 mosaic, Australia coverage

Gross Primary Productivity – MODIS, LPDAAC MOD17A2 mosaic, Australia coverage

If there is wide spread untapped fertile lands just begging for agriculture, how has it managed to hide itself from the most basic microbes, communities of trees (this region is typified by savannah, wetlands and arid landscapes) and most disturbingly, our best monitoring equipment?

I know the tropics can be farmed, but the land in southeast Asia is not as old and depleted as Australian soil. You cannot build complex carbon lifeforms without nutrient rich environments. Australian tropical rainforests are our best teachers to this reality; they are hives of life, yet their soils are depleted, which Australian farmers learned when they cleared them for farming.

In such places, there is a wealth of nutrients, but life lives on the fringe – keeping all the resources in the cycle and leaving none in the ground (ie. rip and burn removes the nutrient base).

So, as was stated in the original article, without vast investments in fertilisers or clearing of the few fertile ecosystems currently there, we do not have an untapped Australian food bowl in the north, as far as productivity is concerned.

Water… again

Again, water is a massive problem. One critic told me about pumping water – but that is a commitment. If one is planning to move hundreds of thousands of people to the north, that is a massive, ongoing, commitment to keep the community hydrated. It is terribly hot, regardless if it is dry or monsoonal, having ample water will be essential.

How is pumping gigatonnes of water to irrigate a low productive environment and to hydrate a heat stressed large community any different to the criticisms regarding desalination plants? In fact, I think it is worse because a political party is willfully wishing to invest in placing such people in such an otherwise avoidable position.

The Ord River Irrigation

This is the root of the dream for the northern Australian food bowl. The Ord River Irrigation area proves the norther is fertile and begging for development.

No, it is one region we have been flooding for more than 50 years, so that the feeding water supply and wetland birds can fertilise. It is also not an ecological risk if extended.

Yet it covers 117km2 of agricultural area – apparently to be extended to 440km2.

Yet a quick GIS polygon of the northern development region norther of Cairns to Broome is a region around 1025700km2. So the Ord River Irrigation area currently amounts for less than 0.0001% of the total region, to be extended to 0.0004%.

Sure, I’m ignoring currently developed regions and places you would not develop for ecological reasons, but are we really willing to bet on “greener pastures” on a sample less than a hundredth of 1% of the entire study region?

Conclusion

My argument was this; it is wishful thinking to bet on the northern development. The Coalition is no stranger to wishful thinking if basic mathematics mean anything, as I demonstrated in my review of the sequestration requirements of the Direct Action Plan or my analysis of their enthusiasm for 100 new dams – a move that would provide as much greenhouse emissions as a city the size of Warrnambool.

The advocates for the northern development, from my opinion, seem to be people who either have no personal interest to endure the harsh tropical climate or are the few locals there that seem to enjoy the prospect of investment potential and a few extra mates at the pub.

The climate is harsh. The soils are old and depleted for the most part. Once the mining investment is done, pumping water, maintaining dams, transporting resources to the middle of nowhere (which will also make them more expensive locally); all these and more will become more and more of a financial burden to be taken up by the locals. It will erode the financial security of the local community and leech the settlements until most move back down south (again the productivity is evident – not just in MODIS data, but in the carrying capacity and economy of a region).

In short, the dead horse is still a stinking rotting mass of bad ideas and wishful thinking. A good punter would be quick to be turned off. However, I do not like instincts. I prefer to test things. I have listened for a heart beat and found none. I have tested for temperature and found it unsuitable for life. I have looked into the eyes of the beast in search for the racers spirit and found nothing but the pale, unfocused glare of an idea that should have been buried a long time ago.

The Ord River Irrigation development is the unlucky horse shoe on the foot of the dead beast. This is not a subject I wish to debunk for the rest of my life, regardless of how many whipping boys are lining up in the vain hope of the norther development.

Part one here.

Future of Food: Water Woes

They even showed a rice crop, happily evaporating that water away…

The Great Murray River: The Real Tragedy of the Commons

The horizon stretches out before me, flat but for a few clusters of trees. The baked soil makes the horizon dance beneath the hot sun.

It is an arid environment and yet, before my feet spreads out an artificial wetland, complete with ibis, herons, egrets, plovers and ducks. Some of these wetland plots are void of all life, but for the rice shoots, due to air cannons sporadically setting off to scare all other life away.

Around the region, it is not uncommon to find aging signs tied to posts and trees along the roads, warning anyone who cares to listen that without water, we have no farms. I cannot help but feel that I am witnessing a real example of the tragedy of the commons. No story of cowboys feeding stock on a shared land required for, in Australia, we have real farmers on one real waterway.

Some readers will remember that, under the chapter “Nothing is Wasted” in The Human Island, I discussed the heated response to the Murray Darling Plan in agricultural communities across the waterway. Memories of that time flooded back as I stand over this man-made wetland.

What happens up-stream plays a roll on what happens down-stream. In effect, these farmers are evaporating away wealth stripped away from periodic wetlands and farming communities from the Riverland all the way down to the Lower Lakes solely to grow a subtropical crop on the arid inland of New South Wales. They could do this due simply to the rule; first come, first served.

I have been privileged to have travelled and to work alongside the most of the length of the great River Murray. I have been involved in air quality concerns resulting from the dry Lower Lakes blowing acidic dust around the struggling communities. I have worked alongside individuals measuring pollution due to industrial, residential and agricultural run-off as well as from the icon house boats that drift along the river system. My previous research focused on the productivity of the floodplains to fringing mallee lands while my current work places me in the Murrumbidgee region, further up-stream.

Even more personally, my father was born in Murray Bridge.

More than many Aussies, I have been lucky not to just know the Murray, but to follow the river from the Great Dividing Range all the way to the ocean mouth and to have studied alongside it and appreciate the rich biota at every bend.

Standing over the evaporating pool, after years of appreciation of the hardship at the tail-end, I could not help but shake my head. States and individuals prove that they are not capable of managing the river system properly as independent entities across the river. Gluttonous behaviour follows an inappropriate selfishness wherever the resource first finds itself. Rice fields in the arid inland are iconic to this fact.

We are likely to experience climatic conditions we simply cannot adequately predict to any great certainty simply because they are not what we knew of the Holocene as we push the climate deeper into the Anthropocene. We, along the Murray, may know a wetter future, with the biggest impact being from inundation of housing on the floodplains. More likely, the Australian “boom and bust” cycle will become more prominent and we will need to plan conservatively in how we utilise common resources. Even in the wetter years, we may not be able to excuse rice and cotton crops with any ethical conviction.

Productivity and, more importantly, what we hope to achieve from productivity – prosperity – will need to result from management of vital resources holistically and not based on border boundaries. Moreover, we need to increasingly maximise our return from limited resources and, in the case of our only major river system, this must mean agricultural practices demanding high water efficiency. The strong pull of water conservation down-stream needs to work against the flow and reach the users up-stream. A lot of progress has been made in South Australia to improve water efficiency that could make a difference up-stream.

The first that comes to mind is covering channels to limit evaporation. Another; no crops that require the creation of a wetland. Apart from the ridiculous amount of water loss, the activity creates methane – a further driver taking us away from the stability that favoured our move from hunter-gathers to a point where you are now reading my musings via electrons on computers, tablets and even mobile phones.

I have no sympathy when I read the pleading call on the posters around this region. I have been lucky enough to see what farmers can do when they do not have much water to work with. These people are innovative not solely because of governmental regulations, but more so because other individuals – such as those behind the creation of the “No water, No farms” posters – whom have long taken large quantities of water to produce rice and cotton; water enough so as the Lower Lakes have at times no longer been lakes at all, but instead barren dust pools.

It has been the actions up-stream that have affected the lives and prosperity of communities and ecosystems down-stream. “No water” has been seriously contemplated along the tail-end of this common resource long before the slogan was planted all over the lucky up-stream region.

This river system illustrates a small real world tragedy of the commons. If this one little system cannot be managed properly, how can our global atmosphere?

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Part One: How Do We Make a Change for Prosperity?

I’ve recently finished read James Garvey’s book, The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World, and I must admit I’m a little disappointed to say that, while we probably reach similar conclusions, we disagree in many ways on how we get there. This is very important, I feel, as I suspect the path taken will have a significant role in the potency of our desired outcomes.

Over this week, as I will be undertaking field work and only sporadically able to have much to do with my posts, I will elaborate on these differences (which, if the truth be known, summarise a few points to another ebook draft that I am working on; The Moral Geo-Engineer).

In this one, I will discuss blame and responsibility.

It is an obviously difficult subject, as Garvey illustrates with his referencing various philosophical arguments that have been presented as well as his own thoughts on the subject. We are instinctively motivated by fairness, a trait that is not restricted to our species alone; illustrated in behavioural studies of other primates, for example. With a problem as large, both in range and impact, as climate change, we are quite naturally drawn to questions of responsibility as justifications for assigning debt and/or punishment.

Garvey, indeed, explains just how difficult this becomes as we look further into the problem at hand. Yet, I feel that this meandering is ultimately counter-productive if not pointless.

Historical and current motivators for assigning blame will inevitably lead to unfairness in one form or another.

Firstly, blame for historical impact serves no purpose most importantly because those responsible are now dead. The sins of the father do not cut it. Moreover, historical instigating forces were naïve to the long term damages such activities would eventually lead to and when such impacts were finally addressed, current generations where already locked into carbon intensive practices for at least a number decades in advance.

It was also a historical accident that provided some states with potential to adapt to these carbon intensive innovations in the first place.

Selecting historical preference is thus morally ambiguous as it will lead to unfair conclusions somewhere along the line. Equally, current generations are the result of these historical influences – even the destructive impulses of neo-liberal consumption driven markets – all of which have locked them into carbon intensive practices for many decades from now. These affluent countries would suffer greater in the urban sprawl if, overnight, they were forced to reduce carbon emissions, per capita, to sustainable levels more than developing nations already at, or beneath sustainable carbon emission levels due simply to the development of local infrastructure over the twentieth. The poorer too, in affluent societies, would feel the worst of this impact, where it to occur, having fewer resources at their disposal to assist with change.

Another often ignored dilemma must also be addressed as it is intimately entwined with greenhouse gas emissions. While greenhouse gas emissions are a developed world’s problem, population increase is a developing world’s problem; which already increases detrimental impact and will ever more so as these nations attempt to achieve the same level of personal prosperity as affluent nations.

Thus, I conclude each one of us are at fault and any further discriminators to the fact, in an attempt to assign weight, is likely to serve no functional purpose worth merit. Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter, because we are all equally stuck with the mess that simply cannot be ignored and the longer that we entertain paralysis, the larger the incurring debt that must be repaid will be. Devaluation of our global resource base for greedy, unsustainable individualism should thus be seen for what it is; abhorrent, immoral and counter-productive to prosperity.

So what do we do about it then? We need to work out who can do what in order to develop procedures that ensure we not only clean up the mess, but provide a sustainable and wealthy future for our descending generations.

True.

The only measure truly on offer is capacity. Whom has the capacity to do what?

Each society must have the capacity to change, first and foremost, certain values within their core societal moral code. That much is universal as there is not a developed or developing society that has an ideal package of values that will reach these desired outcomes.

For developed nations, this will mean rejecting impulses towards strong individualism and status seeking behaviour which ensures strong consumerism and thus needlessly excessive resource devaluation.

For developing nations, this will mean adoption of the most important forms of wealth that developed nations can provide; education and healthcare. Universal, high quality education and healthcare, globally (this also includes across the social ladder of developed nations) will provide effective countermeasures against population growth and standard of living that is beneath subsistence.

The next capacity comes from developed nations. While we are largely locked into excessive behaviours for the short term, we must focus our efforts to improve efficiency. This is not to allow for greater conversation – as we often allow for with efficiency as an ends in itself – but instead to ensure we have left overs from our embedded practises.

These additional “free” resources provide capacity to raise the standard of living of all people to a humane level while retrofitting developed communities towards something more sustainable. Coupled with a transfer of education and healthcare to developing nations would allow greatest bang from our buck as they too are likely to reach for equally sustainable societal infrastructure while combating population growth.

Yet, how are we supposed to ensure efficiency works in this way? More to follow…

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The Human Island has been revised!

In the lead up to the release of two more ebooks, I decided to revisit The Human Island as I was more or less happy with it, except that it did suffer from some grammatical errors and difficult wording. It helps also, because both new books will follow on from the basis I constructed within The Human Island.

For those new to New Anthro, The Human Island explores that very fact; islandisation of our species from ecological services so fundamental for the wealth of our species. Ecosystems trade material and energy. We exclude ecosystems and geological process only to do it at an increased expense. We would be immensely wealthier if we better integrated broader life to human activity. It’s that simple.

Some of it has been reworded, extended or reduced and I’m a lot happier with it now. With any luck I can convince my readers to get a free copy of it from Google Books to place on their readers or hold on their hard drives to read over at their leisure. It is formatted to suit readers. The following books will most likely also be available on the Google Books store and on Kobo, but more on that in the near future!

New Anthropocene is Supporting Kiva loans!

Some readers may have noticed the new subheading above, “Donate and Support Kiva”. I’ve decided to make New Anthropocene more than just a soap box and start to put real money where my mouth is.

I’ve taken the first step in placing some money down towards a project myself. To further this, I’ve also began to sell images on Redbubble, my profile here, and plan to sell my nearly completed ebook, “Freedom” for next to nothing on Google Books (having the additional benefit in that it will also be available from their Google Bookstore as well). All profits will go towards loans on Kiva – I’ve long kept this space active by my own passion alone and do not plan, ever, to change that.

I like Kiva because it is all about providing opportunity. It’s not about donation, but loans through which people and communities can get a leg-up and produce prosperity for themselves. Personally, I am drawn towards agricultural initiatives because it heaps the most vulnerable feed themselves without drawing on unsustainable harvest techniques, such as bush-meat. However, if I can gather enough support for the community of New Anthro (and via the selling of my media) I will ask for feedback and direction in future loans and report back on how they are all going. This may include polls and maybe even the odd fund raiser.

I like the idea that we can accumulate wealth here which in turn can invest and establish wealth in other places that sorely need it. From the experiences of my family members also with Kiva, it is thoroughly positive and I’m glad I finally got involved myself.

If anyone would like to donate, they can under the Donate and Support Kiva heading. I have set up a Paypal account for this with no restrictions on amounts – any amount will help and go towards future loans (they will sit in the Paypal account until they have reached enough to put forward to another loan).