Think globally, ignore locally

STONE the crows! When will Australians understand we are ruining the environment by ducking the great moral challenges of our age, dryland salinity and erosion?

Oops, wrong crises, sorry about that. Of course global warming is now the disaster de jour. Understandably so, a planetary catastrophe caused by capitalism is so much more attractive than salt rising in soil, which then blows away.

But we once were very exercised indeed by these two issues.

In 2006, the federal government warned annual soil loss “is commonly greater” (precise those bureaucrats) than one tonne per hectare, twice the organic decomposition replacement rate, (it sounds a lot, but who knows). [i]

In 2008, the Feds earnestly assured us 5.7 million hectares had “a high potential” of developing dryland salinity then, predicting it to increase by 17 million hectares by the middle of the century. And, of course, it was all our fault (just as our profligate use of electricity is now causing global warming):

While salt is naturally present in many of our landscapes, European farming practices which replaced native vegetation with shallow-rooted crops and pastures have caused a marked increase in the expression of salinity in our land and water resources. Rising groundwater levels, caused by these farming practices, are bringing with them dissolved salts which were stored in the ground for millennia. [ii]

The difference was that erosion and salinity were practical problems with specific solutions, which farmers and officials could address. As such, Canberra’s Landcare program appealed to people interested in the physical environment, rather than using it as a metaphor to criticise capitalism.

When Bob Brown attacked Landcare at the movement’s 1994 conference he was criticised, as a contemporary commentator explained:

the pragmatic response would counter that so long as Landcare improves something, even if it is just by way of a better dissemination of best-practice methods in various agricultural techniques, it is worth the time and effort. [iii]

Landcare was once a very big deal indeed, with Prime Minister Bob Hawke announcing a decade devoted to it in 1989.[iv] As one of its historians put it, despite bickering over who got what:

Landcare appears economically, socially and environmentally sound. This has led Landcare to develop, despite debate over allocation of funds a curiously apolitical air. … Land degradation has become, at one and the same time, Australia’s most important environmental issue, and its most de-politicised one.”[v]

But now salinity and erosion barely rate a mention.

In the last year, the Australia’s three serious newspapers – The Australian, The Australian Financial Review and The Sydney Morning Herald – referred to “rural erosion” just 32 times. However, this is comprehensive coverage compared to “dry-land salinity” which scored a mere three references – and one of them was in a letter to the SMH editor.

Perhaps everybody agrees the problems are solved, although this is unlikely. The Crows have never seen a policy issue declared fixed when there is a chance of public money to pay for it. According to Senator Rachel Siewert, the cost of repairing Australia’s “degraded landscape”, is $80 billion.[vi] In 2002, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the National Farmers Federation were demanding another $11.5bn in private and public money to keep the momentum up. [vii]

So what changed? Here’s a hint: you can buy a whack of wind turbines for Senator Siewert’s estimate. While the Gillard Government sensibly says the market should decide the price of carbon, the measures that please the Greens in the greenhouse gas reduction strategy are the buckets of public money available to environmental activists with great energy ideas, as long as somebody will subsidise them. Like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which delighted Christine Milne – “the Australian community is crying out for renewable energy and I am delighted that we have been able to deliver Australia’s biggest ever public investment in renewable energy.”

Which rather avoids the obvious question that if the community is crying out for alternative energy, entrepreneurs would be out there meeting the market instead of waiting for Canberra to stump.[viii]

Global warming attracts everybody interested in the environment as ideology, and whose contempt for their fellows Australians is such that they cannot stomach the idea of practical people fixing problems at a local level. And for anybody who believes that government has all the answers national regulation to reduce carbon emissions and fund green energy is a no-brainer.

Which makes programs like Landcare entirely unfashionable.

In this year’s budget, Landcare was subsumed into the Caring for Country program, with $26 million in new funding announced, on top of the $400m already allocated for this financial year. [ix] However, it seems the program will actually be reduced, according to an analysis by the Parliamentary Library, (which is too kind to describe the movement of money across allocations as smoke and mirrors funding). [x]

However, there is $1.38bn allocated to reward farmers who “protect biodiverse carbon stores” (the Crows think this might mean trees) and reduce emissions or store carbon.[xi]

Certainly there is also a $12bn bucket of money for the Murray-Darling Basin but it has to deliver multiple dividends, keeping the river flowing to the sea and sustaining wetlands, while not overly upsetting irrigators, which all appear more significant than salinity. [xii]

The present Landcare Plan has goals carefully calibrated for maximum vagueness, like the commitment to have 10,000 more farmers by 2013 “adopting management practices to improve soil health by reducing the risk of soil acidification, soil loss through wind and water erosion and/or increasing the carbon content of soils.” [xiii]

When Environment Minister Tony Burke delivered a wide-ranging speech to The Sydney Institute last week there was (what a surprise!) a bunch of stuff about carbon but salinity was only mentioned in passing. And the Crows could not find any references to land care and erosion at all. [xiv]

Good-oh, there is nothing as ex as an ex great environmental issue of our age. But funding the fashionable stuff does not address enduring issues.

Peter Cosier, from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists understands this, arguing, “Landcare has brought about a fundamental change in the way Australians see our landscape and our place in it.” But he adds that there is a vast amount of work still to be done. And the way to keep the cash coming, he suggests, is to use a carbon price to invest in environmental restoration to soak the stuff up. [xv]

Good luck with that. While the scientists and farmers get on with the work, the predictable activists who used to deplore erosion and salinity have long since moved on to global warming – which is where the action is, and will remain, until the next great moral challenge attracts their attention.


[i] Australian Government, Department if Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, “State of the environment, 2006,” @ recovered on July 23

[ii] Australian Government, Department if Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, “Pressures on land: salinity,” @ recovered on July 23

[iii] Robert Haworth, “Fine sentiments vs brute actions: the landcare ethic and land clearing,” in Stewart Lockie and Frank Vanclay eds), Critical landcare (Centre for Rural Social Research, Charles Sturt University, 1997), 164- 174, 165 @ recovered on July 24

[iv] Landcare Australia, “Submission to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation Inquiry into coordination of the science to combat the nation’s salinity problem” (October 2003) @ recovered on July 23

[v] Stewart Lockie, “Beyond a ‘good thing’: political interests and the meaning of landcare,” (in) Lockie and Vanclay op cit, 29-42, 34 recovered on July 23

[vi] The Senate, Finance and Public Administration References Committee, “Native vegetation laws, greenhouse gas abatement and climate change measures,” April 2010 @ recovered on July 23

[vii] Phillip Toyne and Rick Farley, The decade of landcare: looking forward, looking back” (The Australia Institute, 2000) 13 @

[viii] Christine Milne, “Carbon price agreement delivers major step towards 100% renewable energy,” July 10 recovered on July 24

[ix] Australian Government, “Caring for our Country: Funded Projects. Landcare Funding,” @ recovered on July 23

[x] Bill McCormick, “Budget 2010–11: Climate change, energy and the environment: Environment and natural resource management, Caring for our Country (Parliamentary Library, Budget Review 2010-2011)  @ recovered on July 23

[xi] Australian Government, “Working together for a clean energy future: creating opportunities on the land,” @ recovered on July 23

[xii] Tony Burke, “Environment groups meet to discuss Murray Darling Basin reform,” March 16 2011 @ recovered on July 23

[xiii] Commonwealth of Australia, “Caring for our country: Business Plan 2011-2012,” 70

[xiv] Tony Burke, “Address to the Sydney Institute,” July 20 @ recovered on July 24