One Man’s Hunger Strike Against Sustainability

It seems to be an incredible effort; a 50 day hunger strike – with a wide range of climate change deniers, irate farmers and various media groups camped out along side. This man, Peter Spencer, came to national attention around 40 days into his strike, on his perch on the side of a wind tower, refusing to move until Rudd comes by for a personal one-on-one with apparently struggling farmer. The reason for this strike; current laws restrict clearing of land – which he is claiming has cost him millions. Isn’t such an article fitting for ACA or Today Tonight – one with the hard-up battler fighting against the “injustice” of the local council/state government – the perpetual bad-guy on those pseudo-news shows?

It is of course, an ugly image of a person apparently starving themselves and one of which every humane instinct screams out to assist. That said however, in this case I really couldn’t care less. Indeed from the first article I saw, I became little more than some football junky, screaming my head off at the TV. This individual and those that rally behind him are part of the short-sighted population, mentioned in my previous post, trying their best to leading us to an increasingly inhospitable future.

As I have said before and will no doubt continue to state, I really don’t care what your views are about climate change. As previously stated in more detail, there is little doubt that the world is changing, we are injecting increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and we are also taking more and more of the sinks for such gas away from the environment. Simple fact – I’ll leave you to debate whether our actions are significant or not; I’ve made up my mind that any activity that is destructive and causes species loss, land degradation, potential for climate change and/or the spread of disease/famine in an activity significant enough for reaction.

Living against the Mt Lofty region, being a student of ecology and since, an employee of a number of environmental potions, I’ve had local examples of land clearing, increases in dryland salinity, endemic community islandisation/fragmentation, increased drought and land degradation continually brought to my attention. Polluted run-off and industrial waste water have done incredible damage to our river ways, river dolphins and sea grasses (the very nursery of many locally commercial fish species). We are aware, at least politically and academically, of the very stain we are on the Adelaide Plains and Mt Lofty regions (for more information on this, many others on the net have published excellent research on the subject, of which I am unwilling to repeat. A simple Google search will do the job, or go here for a piece about the Mt Lofty region created by the WWF).

The simple fact of the matter is, most, if not all of the traditional farming techniques utilized across Australia are based on those brought over from the UK and Europe – many of these techniques are now failing over there and were never suitable in Australia to begin with. For example, the large livestock; Australia has not had to support vast amounts of large animals since the disappearance of the megafauna. How can anyone truly believe that adding millions of large animals, such as cattle and sheep and their feral counterparts wild cattle species and camels,  to a fragile ecosystem can be maintained without large scale ecosystem modification and species displacement? (sorry, in mentioning camels I would to make another person remark which I’ve made before; Erin Burnett should, as a public figure, do her research before shooting her mouth off and making ridiculously stupid comments on U.S. TV)

Yet, the typical attitude is to bring over the cattle and sheep, burn the land of anything that hinders their movement and grazing… The canopy is gone, the understory is eaten… the place doesn’t rain for a few years, so you pump stuff to the surface or better yet – pump it/divert flow from the Murray (which was reported by early explores, even at that point, to be too saline to drink *I will find a link to back this up*). Rain comes; the seed bank is largely dead due to the salinity/increased dryness/change to fire regimes… Oops.. what looked like fertile lands a generation ago is reduced to little more than a desert. Good job there mate! She’ll be right – just over there – we’ve still got an oasis. Get ya akubra on, saddle up and take those lumbering beasts up the dusty track to the next billabong.

Please don’t take me as completely against the Aussie farmer, my grandfather was the last farmer in my family. My dad still tells me about the hard-yakka man who worked the land relentlessly and on weekends cut wood and did various other jobs to give his family the very best. Once, while he and I were traveling around the plains to the north west of the Mt Lofty region, he pulled the car to the rocky edge of the dirt road and led me over the rusty remains of a fence and then through long yellow grass. He took me up to the stone frame of a small cottage. He had lived there as a child – up against the foot of a small hill, overlooking the fields. This quiet sweeping landscape was once his home.

The fact again stated; traditional farming does not work in Australia. In the current political environment, such measures as stripping/burning the land and water allotment are increasingly difficult to defend and address. The water requirements for cotton, rice and large livestock alone should be enough of an argument against those industries in most regions of Australia. Land clearing, habitat destruction and species displacement should be enough to argue against large livestock in most regions of Australia. Greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and rice paddies should enough to argue against those industries across Australia. I could continue in this fashion for a couple of pages, but again I won’t repeat the great work done by others.

But now for some positives…

That all said, in my various positions, it has been brought to my attention that many different groups have, instead of climbing a mast on a hunger strike, endeavoured to improve on current techniques and shown innovative approaches to not only better suit their land, but also in many cases increase their profitability; see here for salinity related initiatives, here and here for irrigation related initiatives (there are many other excellent examples out there), here are some case studies of innovative farming and more CRC stuff here.

There are mounting numbers of farmer and academic groups liaising, developing or at the least taking a leap out of the norm on their own to improve their business and create a more sustainable and thus more profitable approach to farming within the various Australian environments.

In 2007, as part of my position at the time, I had to collect as many case examples as I could of such innovative farming (it was a long process with the data now unavailable to me, I’m not willing to go to such a thorough search again for this short piece). I was amazed by the steps taken to protect waterways from livestock destruction and bank collapse (note here; in one of the cases, it was to help protect industry further downstream, including estuary farming – something within S.A. waterways that doesn’t look like it’ll be mirrored between the Murray-Darling states without federal help – good on you N.S.W!), by the number of S.A. irrigators moving towards more water efficient practices (leading by example) and by crop changes to help improve land health and provide more sustainable crop feed for livestock.

This, plus both my work and education history and the appreciation my father has embedded in me of life on the land and the hard-yakka spirit, has left me very interested in agricultural practices in Australia. It is without a doubt a difficult problem. As the above examples tend to point out – it seems to be a problem that has been largely left up to interested individuals, struggling farmers and academic groups to work to collaborate, address and solve what is a much larger problem. Yet there is a clear and present gusto behind such initiatives.

All the while, Mr. Spencer sits in his little perch and demands the Rudd government pay his way out of a large family debt, which his own brother has apparently stated as being the result of ‘marginal land of limited farming value’ (see this article in the Australian online). In the same article it is said that Peter is not of a farming background, but both business and PR and has history of public temper tantrums (following the end of his first marriage it appears that he was involved in a stand-off with police).

Not only is this an act against the good work of many other entrepreneurial and innovative individuals and group, it is also an act against the environment and the hope of bettering our practices. While it seems difficult to get a much exposure for the great work being done out on the fields (honestly, how often do you hear of cutting-edge and innovative farming in popular media outlets?), you have some bozo, farmer-wannabe kicking up a stink to defend unsustainable farming techniques on poor value farming land making the news daily.

What makes this even worse is that the greedy point of this man is being lost behind the different agendas of his cult following. There are other farmers with their own issues relating to regulations of land use, there are climate change deniers from both the general public and political arenas voicing their support, and there is no doubt that every one of the media outlets following this story are spinning it to suit their own views on the whole socio-economic/enviro-political question which far outreaches this one man on his tower (here the Australian online go into some of this).

As far as I see it – all these people are around him, both physically and objectively, screaming out their own views and voicing their own opinions – some of which I wouldn’t be surprised if they have already made him a martyr of their own cause – while he sits perched in the middle with no-one really hearing him for what he is really saying. To make it more coherent than it seems to have been made by any of the media outlets; Peter is demanding the government to pay him millions of dollars to cover his absurd debt – all because this businessman turned farmer couldn’t get away with impractical, outdated and unsustainable farming techniques on low quality farming lands.

It’s a shame that stupidity gets more coverage than the innovative and practical.

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