Urban Wasteland: The Human Island (Chapter 10)

I do my best to ignore the chuckles of an elderly couple as they walk past my house. Certainly, I’m one of very few who would actively choose a manual reel lawn mower, especially when the local Kmart or Bunnings sell motorised units for next to nothing. As it becomes increasingly difficult to mow the lawn with the reel mower as grass length increases and I happen to living in the fertile region of the Lofty ranges. Much of the humour must be in my “needless” struggling with grass that rapidly grew following a recent light shower.

But why deny myself this wonderful chance for exercise? My working life can only be described as a sedentary one – even the once-a-month field trip requires 6 hours of driving and maybe an hour of activity. I often find trivial excuses to get up from my desk and climb stairs solely for some activity. I think we naturally benefit, not only physically but mentally from activity – it’s no secret that exercise is proven to improve mood and counter depression.

That said, I’m the last to sign up for gym membership as it seems to me to be going about the whole problem from the wrong direction. What is the real benefit of labour-saving devices if they reduce your physical exertion so much that you require the spend that “saved” time jogging to nowhere on a treadmill? It’s long been one of the logical fallacies of a consumer based society, as I see it. Why not save time and, more importantly, money by taking the short-hand approach and spend the physical energy on productive work in the first place?

It might simply be me, however the image of someone jogging on the spot or partaking in group cardio-aerobic exercise is by far a more peculiar spectacle than to witness genuine physical labour or seeing a group engage in sport or dance.

Whilst trudging through the thick grass, doing my best to ignore the neighbours, the seed of The Human Island series was planted (and yet took me ten chapters to get to this point!).

People tended to move into an area because it seemed to promise productivity. People stayed and multiplied when the promise paid out in produce. Most major populations nowadays are where agriculture worked well or are along important trade routes between productive settlements.

Adelaide and the Mount Lofty region were settled for the productive land.

Over the twentieth century, western societies began to radically change, largely due to the internal combustion engine and the turbine – both relying on fossil fuels [14].

Cheap fuel has changed production. Where transfer no longer limits production, the only remaining overheads are labour and environmental concern. Globalisation of production meant that local producers soon had to compete with competitively cheap imports, where such overheads are far lower.

As many farmers within western societies soon realised, unless you were able scale up the farm, using more aggressive mono-culture techniques, there appeared to be simply no other way to stay afloat on the global market. Expanding communities require land – this stood as an attractively profitable exist from the competitive production market for landholders.

For Adelaide and the Mount Lofty region as well as many other regions of the globe, this meant that urban sprawl claimed much of this once productive land. With improvements to the southern freeway over the past decade, the residents of the Lofty region have witnessed an influx of people wanting a touch of rural tranquillity within a short drive of Adelaide city.

One comment to an online article regarding sprawl in the Adelaide hills says it all;

“I say HOORAH for urban sprawl…
“…someday [I’d] like to move out to Mt Barker or somewhere nice in the hills. The people have to live somewhere, Adelaide is a hot spot now. If you don’t want Mt Barker being turned into “suburbia” move WAY out into the stix. The farm land isn’t even being used very well anyway, we get most of our produce overseas or interstate because it’s CHEAPER. Plus we could save a lot of water by not having so much farming.”

Obviously there are a number of flaws to this attitude, such as the extra pressure on water supplies where the produce originates (plus urban water use in new sprawl) as well as the deficit inevitable from a net importing community. However, cheap imports and growing populations make sprawl inevitable – regardless of long term risks and unseen environmental degradation.

From natural vegetation to productive agricultural land and then to urban environments; we have an anthropogenic succession of diminishing ecology. Sure, the Lofty region still maintains much of its former charm, but as any one of us who has witnessed new developments appear, unification of style and expectation tends to dilute anything unique. Displacing the wildlife and the ‘Jones’s housing design’ will mean that much of the Lofty region will eventually be an Adelaide suburb with a “hilly” feel, just as Brighton is an Adelaide suburb with a “beachy” feel or Salisbury is an Adelaide suburb with a “plain-sy” feel.

They are places where the few bird species that can persist, keep a watchful eye out for the overfed cat; where the dogs howl in the afternoon – bored and waiting for the family to return; where the drably patterned generalist invertebrates die most often by poisonous gas or shoe heel; where children live so far from an open space that they no longer climb a tree or catch anything interesting, but content themselves with electronic gadgetry; where the introduced bee species feed themselves on weeds and ornamental flowers. Urban environments are ecological wastelands that provide no real reason for any of us to care greatly about them – indeed most of us can happily move halfway across the nation, provided that we bring our loved ones and prized possessions.

Coupling inactivity with urban environments of low connective value, I wonder why there so much discussion about the growing apathy, materialism, depression and disappearing sense of community. Not only is the remnant ecology disjointed and sparse, so too is anything that gives a community any worth and identity.

Not only is local productive land increasingly being lost beneath new housing slabs, but many human processes contaminate what is left. Filling up a fuelled lawn mower and the exhaust will contaminate the soil and collecting the clippings to send to landfill reduces the quality of the soil by removing compost.

We many, as in the comment above, celebrate in the name of sprawl, but in doing so, we celebrate becoming more genetic and apathetic; we celebrate the loss of diversity, identity, activity and purpose.

[14] Smil, V. 2009. U.S. energy policy: The need for radical departures. Issues in Science and Technology Summer 2009:47-50.


is chapter ten of the series The Human Island: A Place of Ecological Ruin. To see the previous chapter, click here. As the series grows, the complete work can be found here.

[14] Smil, V. 2009. U.S. energy policy: The need for radical departures. Issues in Science and Technology Summer 2009:47-50.


13 thoughts on “Urban Wasteland: The Human Island (Chapter 10)

  1. An urban garden can be a safe-haven for small wild-life and you can plant it lovely with native plants and/or herbs which can be used in the kitchen. It is possible to have some fruit trees.
    Mono culture agriculture is just as devastating to the soil as urban slabs are, in my opinion.
    Making urban areas more biodiverse is just as important as biodiversity on agricultural land. It will make life a lot easier and healthier for all who live there.


  2. I too have a push mower and love the looks I get from people as they go past , its so much easier than a petrol or even electric mower and they cut the grass so much better.
    Cant agree about the gym but , it would be good if we could keep fit and strong just from our daily activities but pushing the mower once a week and even some gardening just isnt enough to get the heart rate up .
    I like gym cause its out of the sun (scottish/irish skin) and I can do exercises for my back so I dont stuff it when Iam digging a hole or halfway up a tree pruning branches .
    Areas should be set aside for people to grow their own food like the alotment system in Britian used to be , that would help reudce transport and get us back to nature .


    1. True; such things do not make up the needed activity, but it remains a real tragedy that we yearn for a life of labour saving devices that in turn requires that we need to resort to needless burning of energy..
      Re: allotment – Mike and I are working behind the scene to produce a new blog that will be a collective effort. My angle on this will be largely promoting productive urban environments. Personally, I feel lots can be down with our own (often neglected) yards.. more on that later!


      1. Re: allotment , yeah so much space wasted on grass in backyard I agree , but dont forget the social interaction you get with community gardening schemes Ive seen some good one on ABCs Gardening Australia program .
        Oh and meant to say an interesting post to read as well .


      2. You couldn’t be more correct – a sense of community will be increasingly important over the coming decades.
        It’s all good mate, it’s great to know my writing’s enjoyed!


  3. Just discovered your blog, keep up the good work. I also wanted to say that this:

    “What is the real benefit of labour-saving devices if they reduce your physical exertion so much that you require the spend that “saved” time jogging to nowhere on a treadmill?”

    is an excellent point.


  4. There is a kind of reductionist mentality about exercise versus activity.

    I remember years ago my dad started to put on weight. Couldn’t understand it. Eventually light dawned. The factory / office he worked in had been redesigned. His previous office had been 10 or so steps above the factory floor. He must have left and returned to the office more than a dozen times a day. When the office was moved to be level with the surroundings, his work didn’t change in the slightest, but his levels of daily activity took a huge hit.

    Suddenly he had to *think* about how to incorporate more activity into his day. Just like today’s gym junkies.


  5. If I could or needed to work in the yard everyday and could ride 13kms to work everyday I wouldnt need to go to the gym , Ive found doing some weights and cardio helps my back which had become weakened from sitting driving trains for so long and just makes me feel like being more active .

    Old chinese saying “Machines make men devious”
    also I would rather see people spending thier ‘saved” time doing some thing active even if it is gym than sitting infront of the TV .


    1. I hear you – it would be nice to have increased activity throughout the day, rather than to compensate at other points. Keeping up core strength is also very important.

      You’re right – the TV is very damaging…


    1. The hard thing about typing is tone, lol. I guess I’ve been writing so much to climate change deniers, I might be sounding a little too snappy. No need for an apology mate – it was my writing that came across wrong 🙂


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