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Is Australia Sustainable? Ecological Lessons from Down Under

Is Australia Sustainable? Lessons from Down Under

Why Australia?

Generally, I prefer to write about countries I’ve been to even in a general theoretical essay like this. I will make an exception in the case of Australia. Consequently, unlike my post on the British and Northern Isles, everything I write here is based on literature alone and not on personal experience.

Why Australia, then?

Aborigines, mega fauna and island allure

I might have gotten intrigued about it from reading Yuval Noah Harari’s account about the decimation of the fantastic ancient mega-fauna by the early aboriginesSomething did not ring right.

I was also curious about the effects of sheep grazing down under, having seen its devastating effects on the northern isles. 

Or perhaps I was attracted to the topic because I love islands, and Australia is the biggest one on Earth.

Island vulnerabilities

As I wrote elsewhere,  islands always have a loop road around them, a limited number of roads crisscrossing them, and patchy, sparse facilities in the interior and remote locations. That, by and large, is true for Australia as well…Many small towns cannot get bank services or proper communications, and in the “outback”, services are relatively poor.

Australia main roads and highways

Australia Road map and Highways.


Big as it is, then, still some island vulnerabilities are at play here too. To their detriment, the Europeans colonizers of this incredible land did not care about those vulnerabilities, or were not aware of them. Unfortunately, that makes it an interesting case study for ecological mismanagement and potential environmental disasters. 

Food for thought

This is by no means an academic study or review. I have no presumptions to understand the Australian environment in depth, or to cover all aspects and points of view about debated issues. There’s no way I can judge whether Australia is sustainable or not. This is just food for thought for interested people who might want to search further. However, the post belongs in my general discussion on the effects of what we eat on the environment and the urgent need to shift to predominantly plant-based diets in order to “save the Planet”.

I will not discuss here the tragedy of the Great Barrier Reef. First, because I don’t want to spread myself too thin. But, perhaps, the real reason is that to me as a marine biologist, coral reef lover and a diver, this tragedy is literally too painful to bear.  

The Raw Substrate: The Driest Continent, the Least Productive Soils and the Salt Down Under

Nutrient-poor soils

According to JD (pp. 380-3, see reference below), the cardinal environmental problem in Australia is not so much the scarcity of water, but the nutrient-poor soils. That was true prior to both aboriginal and European colonizations and resulted from the continent’s geological history. Australian soils are extremely ancient, and had been rain-leached of nutrients over hundreds of millions of years, if not billions. The oldest rocks in the world,  4.4 billion years old, are in western Australia.

There are three processes that can correct nutrient deficiency in soils, but none of them exists in Australia to any significant measure: volcanic eruptions, land uplifts and glacier movement. There are some pockets where these elements operated to a degree, and most of the current agriculture is concentrated in those areas. Otherwise, the majority of Australian soils are largely non-productive.

The driest continent

Additionally, Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world: 70% of it is either arid or semi arid land. About 81% of Australia (“The Outback”) is broadly defined as rangelands. Rangelands are now predominantly used for livestock and grazing. They extend across various climate zones, from low to high rainfall, and include diverse ecosystems such as tropical savannas, woodlands, shrublands and grasslands. Most, though, are prevalent in the drier regions of the country. The rangelands are often in poor condition and economically unviable. According to Newton and Ashton from Sidney’s University of Technology, this is in part, “due to the fact we still farm many animals, mostly in ways that are unsuited to the Australian climate and environment”

Very tough times, following almost two years of no rain, farm animals dying

Very tough times, following almost two years of no rain, farm animals dying. Source: Photographer: Jennifer Marohasy

There is an on-going debate on whether the aborigines themselves affected the continental climate with their “burnings”(see below), how much the European mismanagement (land clearances, grazing) influenced the climate and how much falls under the general category of the global climate change. What is clear is that the situation is grave

AUS with positive IOD to west, El Nino to east, Weak monsoon north and positive SAM in winter south.

Drought drivers in Australia

Source: salt down under

The salt down under

If all that wasn’t enough, then another intrinsic huge problem is the salt (JD, pp. 401-4). Salt has been brought to the land by sea breezes over millions of years. In Southeast Australia, the basin of the Murray and Darling rivers, salt is deposited by repeated sea inundations. Additionally, a dried freshwater lake left salt deposits behind. Those are carried by wind to other parts of eastern Australia.

Diamond asks the reader to visualize this salt as an underground river whose salinity in some parts is 3 times that of the ocean. Due to bad agricultural practices, much of this salt now percolates upwards to the cultivated layer, or downwards to the groundwater table.

Aboriginal Impact

Aborigines and the decimation of the mega-fauna

Nobody’s an angel…

Nobody since humanity started using tools is an “environmental angel”. We all affect the environment in countless ways, impossible to enumerate and evaluate. Almost everything we do, eat, buy, use, has an impact, repercussions – local as well as global. That might apply to the Australian aborigines as to everybody else…

Many scientists claim that early aborigines were responsible for the extermination of the original mega-fauna of the Australian continent , and that this happened very quickly, within 5000 years of their colonization (about 45,000 years ago).

It ain’t necessarily so…

New findings challenge this view. Human and animal bones found in Willandra Lakes in southeatern Australia show that humans co-existed with at least some mega-fauna species for a minimum of 17,000 years.

Furthermore, artefacts found in Kakadu National Park in northern Australia, have been dated to be 65,000 to 80,000 years old! This extends the likely occupation of the area by thousands of years, making it clear there was an operlap with the megafauna of about 20-25,000 years!!!

It puts to rest the idea that Aboriginal people wiped out the megafauna very quickly”.

That does not “absolve” them of these extinctions altogether, of course. Combined with climatic changes and possibly other environmental difficulties, a persistent hunting pressure could and would overtime bring some species to the edge, but perhaps later rather than sooner…

Coexistence of aborigines and mega-fauna, Australia

Co-existence of humans and mega-fauna


Effects of low-intensity hunting

Whatever the human effect had been, it was most likely inadvertent.

Scientists claim that 

even low-intensity hunting of Australian megafauna – like the killing of one juvenile mammal per person per decade – could have resulted in the extinction of a species in just a few hundred years“…

Could the people have known that? Could they have had an estimate of the effect of their own subsistence on the continent in the long term? Implausible.

Ecology is all about rates

Basically, ecological irreversibility is a question of the relative growth rates of the populations involved. When a top predator does not allow a population to maintain its size, over a certain period of time that population will go extinct. When the rate of tree cutting exceeds that of tree growth, the trees will disappear. If the rate of soil erosion exceeds that of soil creation, soil will disappear. 

Think about the whales and the elephants today. Do they have a chance???

Aborigine burnings and agriculture

Additionally, later aboriginal agricultural practices and intentional fires are assumed by some to have affected the climate of the continent. The fires were often meant to help with spotting prey.

In the article, “How aboriginal burning changed Australia’s climate“, an Australian-American scientist group demonstrates experimentally the effects of periodic aboriginal fires not only on the Australian vegetation, but on the continental climate itself. The fires effectively extended the dry season and delayed the onset of the monsoons. 

On the other hand, in a seminal article in the reputable “Guardian”, Larissa Beherendt, a scholar and writer of aboriginal origin, says there is now “a heavy interest” in the traditional practices of fire burning. Pastoralists, conservationists and others start to understand that

perhaps a culture that has lived on a land for around 60,000 years might know a thing or two about how to maintain its delicate ecosystems.

An Aboriginal man setting fire via traditional practices to manage the land

An Aboriginal man setting fire via traditional practices to manage the land

The general opinion is that despite the possible adverse environmental impacts mentioned, overall the aborigines kept Australia sustainable for dozens of thousands of years through major climatic and topographic changes!

That cannot be said for the 250 years of European colonization!

The current drier conditions and the rapid degradation of soil fertility are ascribed principally to the European settlement and to the industrially-caused global climate change. (See below).

But first:

European Impact - Aboriginal Genocide

The human-ecological nexus

Talking about ecological devastation should by no means diminish the gravity of the direct and malevolent impact of humans over humans. I mentioned the Irish Holocaust in the context of Ireland’s land degradation, and I will mention the Australian aborigine genocide and cultural destruction here.

Both human calamities are deeply connected and intertwined with sweeping ecological changes to the lands in question.

Another obvious and perhaps more well-known example is, of course, the concomitant genocide of the American Indians and the buffalo

All in all, the global ecological devastation, as well as the marginalization / annihiliation of indigenous cultures and peoples caused by European colonizations in the last 500 years is incalculable. That is no less true for the treatment by the Russian and Soviet empires of “their” native peoples and lands, as well as other world empires.

Recent research, quoted in CNN this week, suggests even more stunning connections regarding the human-ecological nexus. According to a scientific review by leading authorities from UK universities, the decimation of 56 million indigenous people over about 100 years in South, Central and North America, caused large swaths of farmland to be abandoned and reforested. The ensuing increase in trees and vegetation across the western hemisphere resulted, according to the study, in a massive decrease in carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and a cooling of the average global atmosphere in the beginning of the 17th century, known as the “little ice age”. 

A toxic concoction

In Australia it was a toxic concotion of ignorance, arrogance, unabashed racism and a utilitarian and disparaging attitude towards the land and its people. A good and incredibly depressing article about this elaborates on what they call a deliberate “centuries-long genocide”, spanning “disease, war, starvation, and conscious policies of kidnapping and re-education of native children“. As a result, the indigenous population declined from over a million in 1788 to a few thousand by the early 20th century.

If you would like to believe this depressing situation had drastically improved, or that it has by now somehow miraculously rolled back, watch the movie Samson and Delilah.

A scene from movie Samson and Delilah , 2009, Canne International Film FestivalA scene from Samson And Delila (Cannes International Film Festival 2009)


It is, of course, true that the early European settler population consisted mostly of prisoners brought over to be punished and removed from society. Australia was considered the “biggest outdoor jail”. Still, it is no justification for the horrors that were committed against the natives, and certainly not for official colonial policies targeting the indigenous populace.

Much of the ecological devastation in Australia could have been avoided if native populations were treated respectfully and their knowledge accepted as valid and precious.

European Impact - The Land as the Adversary

As bad as the original soils were, the imposition of European ways of life and land use on Australian lands created further degradation, salinization and loss of productivity.

The land as the enemy

Victimhood and denial

Australian historian Ann Curthoys says  white male settlers of the frontier considered the natural environment as the adversary of man (full reference below).

Partially in order to hush the topic of the slaughter of the aborigines, Australian settler lore had it that the land itself was the enemy. The pioneers, suffering through the harshest conditions the land had imposed on them, were seen as both victims and heroes. Their own role as victimizers was silenced and trivialized by mainstream historians all the way up to the 1980s. Schools did not cover aborigine-related topics in their curricula. 

Hell on earth 

According to Deborah Bird Rose, quoted in Ann Curthoys’ article, Expulsion, exodus and exile in white Australian historical mythology“, Americans feel they have freed themselves from a “hardened Pharoah” back in Europe, in order to inhabit a new Promised Land and secure a New Covenant with God. 

In contrast, Australian settlers conceived of their new land as hell on earth. Its foundation owed more to the myth of the Expulsion than to a dream of liberation.

In the Australian  version of the Expulsion myth, Home in England was Eden, the king was God, and the convicts “sinful fallen people doomed to a life of toil and sweat amidst thorns and thistles.” 

Others saw colonization as a mixture of the myths of The Fall and The Exodus:

For some of us Australians, our forefathers forsook the green fields and teeming cities of Europe …, setting out like Abraham and Moses to find a promised land. They knew Exodus and Exile, condemnation and chains, desert wanderings and struggle, inequality and injustice, the crucible of tragedy and suffering, the childbirth of a new people. (Andrew Lattas)

Exhustion and weariness

Ann Curthoys also quotes Allan Moorhead: 

Nothing in this strange country seemed to bear the slightest resemblance to the outside world: it was so primitive, so lacking in greenness, so silent, so old. It was not a measurable man-made antiquity, but an appearance of exhaustion and weariness.

This was the stage on which the heroic war of the pioneer settlers with the land took place.

European Impact - Importing The Fluffy (and Other) Disasters into Kangaroo Land

The cute,fleecy destruction machines

The best way to deal with all this alienation and estrangement was to bring old beloved home to the new home. The easiest way to do that was to import familiar flora and fauna, surround oneself with the known and cherished. It was also the settlers’ default way of making a living and gaining profits. 

For all these reasons, the cute, fleecy, fluffy destroyer machines were brought to Australia to “tame the new land”. 

It did not work out too well.

In my humble opinion, it did not work too well in the British and other northern isles, either!!! Check my post.

Exporting those animals to a virgin continent was a recipe for disaster.

Number of sheep by state. Australia

Number of sheep per state.


Wool was Australia’s main export from 1820 to 1950, due to its low bulk in shipping and its high value. Sheep farming is “ingrained into Australia’s cultural identity” and significant fractions of the land are still used for raising sheep. In 1970, there was a peak number of 180 million sheep in the continent that by then had only 12.5 million people! That number has declined since, as other economic branches surged. During the 1990s the industry transitioned from a primarily wool-based orientation towards the slaughter lamb-producing industry it is today.

However, sheep do not really suit the land. Kangaroo paws have a softer and lighter contact with the soil than the hard hooves of sheep. Additionally, sheep grazing virtually “mines” the soil fertility (JD, p. 390). The industry as a whole is faltering, and its legacy is land degradation through overgrazing. 


To make things worse, the land was also “overcapitalized”, due to British financial cultural norms in the 18-19th centuries. That led to overstocking, called “flogging the land” (JD, p. 393). Overstocking led to overgrazing, soil erosion, bankrupcies and abandonments. 

Today overstocking is disallowed, but previously farmers were forced to stock as much as 3 to 10 times today’s maximal permitted quotas.

The first settlers mined the standing crop of grass, rather than treating it as a potentially renewable resource”. (JD, p. 399). 

The noble sport of fox hunting  

Home away from home for the nobility? No problem. Even in this strange, remote land, the British being British would get their fun under the sun… And that meant, of course, playing foxes and rabbits. Victorian settlers were “keen to indulge the noble sport of fox-hunting”.

Red fox, Australian invasive species
Red fox. Source:

So the animals were shipped in and, after some failed attempts at acclimatization, succeeded so much so they actually took over the entire land, displacing the native species as well as ravaging agricultural animals and crops.

According to Chris Johnson in The Conversation: “The red fox may be the most destructive species ever introduced to Australia.” For a start, it carries most of the blame for Australia’s appalling record of mammalian extinctions. More than 20 native mammalian species went extinct, leaving vast areas of southern Australia to “seemingly limitless numbers of foxes and rabbits“. Foxes are also a major affliction to agriculture.

The rabbits as prey kept foxes numbers high, even as the native species dwindled. They also contributed to native species extinction through competition for resources. Imported from Europe to be hunted, they by now became a continent-wide pest. Less than one rabbit per hectare is needed to prevent the successful regeneration of many native trees and shrubs, that are vital for biodiversity and for farm productivity.

Farmers spend fortunes to get rid of those introduced animals, with limited success.

Additionally, even the introduced horses (brumbies), who went feral,  ravage the countryside, causing some environmental problems. And there are also undesirable effects from the introduction of camels and water buffaloes.

Update (May 2019): The NYT reports that feral cats also decimate the native fauna, or whatever is left of it. Environmentalists are trying to fight it by killing the cats. Good luck!

European land management – the impact 

According to Pascoe, the foreign livestock – horses, foxes, rabbits, sheep – broke up the soil with their hard hooves, leading to erosion. The effect was fast and drastic. Clearances, of course, exacerbated everything.

Moreover, foreign crops, and later, intensive farming techniques, including chemical fertilizers, drained the land of its former fertility. 

Mr. Pascoe contends that continuing to farm using European-derived, intensive systems is a recipe for land degradation and environmental collapse. This is even more true now with the compounding impacts of climate change (severe weather events, more frequent and intense droughts, fires, and now – floods…).

More on this topic below  – “Mining Australia”.

"Mining Australia"

According to Jared Diamond (Collapse, chapter 13), the first European farmers inadvertently “mined” the soils for nutrients. By “mining” he means taking and eploiting without thought of renewal or regeneration, like you mine for gold. The poverty of the soil and its non-productivity were not originally perceptible to their eyes. Of course, settlers saw it as beneath them, and practically inconceivbale, to consult with the natives on how to manage the land…

But, after loggers removed the first standing crop of trees, and after sheep had grazed the standing crop of grass, the settlers were surprised to discover that both trees and grasses grew back very slowly, and that the land was agriculturally uneconomic. Many farmers, who invested heavily in homes, fences, buildings, had to abandon their farms. Since colonial times, Australian land use had gone through many cycles of clearance, investment, bankrupcy and abandonment. The more inland the farms were, the more at risk.

Crops grow slowly and the yields are low across the continent. When the land is further degraded by clearances, pests, overgrazing, non-native weeds and salinization, productivity plummets. The only way to solve the problem now is to supply the land with artificial fertilizers.

Diamond compares the southwestern “wheat belt” to a huge “flowerpot” in which the sand provides nothing more than the physical substrate, and all nutrients have to be supplied artificially. As a result, local produce is often more expensive than imports. It is, for example, cheaper to import Brazilian orange juice than to produce it locally…

So is Australia sustainable?

Another huge problem – soil salinization

Land clearances and irrigation by the European settlers, resulted in another serious problem – salination of the topsoils, where often no crops can now grow. As with nutrient mining, the farmers were unaware of the problem until it hit.

Most plants cannot grow in salty soils. As long as the salt stays below the roots, there’s no problem. But, commonly-used flood/sprinkle irrigation (in contrast to drip irrigation) causes  percolation to deeper salty layers. The dissolved salt then seeps up to the roots zone or down to the groundwater.

In areas with sufficient winter rains, natural vegetation absorbs the water, preventing it from filtrating downwards. But if the vegetation was cleared and replaced with crops that are harvested seasonally, the ground is left bare for a part of the year. In that situation, the rain percolates down to the salt layer, allowing it to diffuse up to the surface.

The salt layer can be envisaged as an underground river, with salinity as much as three times that of the ocean. 

Much of the land today is useless for either agriculture or pastoralism due to salinization. And the process has the potential to spread to 6 times the current extent, and in some areas to 10-fold or more (JD, p. 403). 

Salinization is either irreversible or very costly to reverse.

“Clearing the land”

In the not too far past, the Australian government itself forced farmers, whose status is of “leaseholders”, to “clear” their lands and overstock them with the fluffy creatures… (JD, p. 393-4)

The relationship to the native fauna and flora of the continent was basically to dispose of them, not much different than what was done to the indigenous human population. That is not surprising, considering the attitude to the land as an adversary to be conquered.

“Clearing” and “cleaning” come from the same root and imply something good. A clear sky is nice, blue and sunny, but what brings plenty to the land are clouds. What you don’t understand or don’t appreciate, you get out of your way, you “clear”. The results can be catastrophic. No corner of the natural world is sterile or monolithic.

British colonists cleared the land partially because they did not like its appearance! Until the 1980s, the government actually subsidized land clearances and required it of the lease holders! As an incentive, they got tax deductions. Farmers used tractors with dragged chains to remove the native vegetation.  

A “side effect” of clearances are land salinization leading to freshwater salinization. Another “side effect” is an abundance of runoff, resulting in water turbidity that, in turn, murks river and ocean water, damaging the Great Barrier Reef… Rotting and burning of the bulldozed vegetation contribute to the country’s overall gas emissions in equal measure to motor vehicles…

Though forced clearances were dropped, Australia still clears more land than any other First World country. These clearances take place mostly in Queensland for the purpose of creating pasture for beef cattle… 

The loss of small native mammals and its effect on the ecosystem

Small mammals burrowed and turned over the Australian soils for ages, just like the praire dogs in the U.S, and Mexico. They made it possible for roots to penetrate the topsoil, aerated the earth, allowed water to filtrate the ground, mixed up the organic matter and fertilized the land. Wombats, for example, can burrow through layers of very hard soils. Echidna pits have twice the water as undisturbed soils. Bandicoot diggings can be the only site of water inflitration in otherwise water-repellent soils. 

Australia now discovers that losing “the diggers” hurts the entire ecosystem. The introduction of predators, land clearings, and diseases, caused six of the 29 digging mammal species that were present 200 years ago to go extinct. All other living species suffer from habitat shrinkage. Many are gone from the Australian mainland completely or exist only in predator-proof fenced reserves. 

This common wombat may not be threatened, but other species are critically endangered. Flickr/Timmy ToucanThis common wombat may not be threatened, but other species are critically endangered

Source: Flickr: Timmy Toucan

These mammals also helped to spread spores and fruiting bodies of mycorrhizal fungi that aid plants with nutrient absorption. The loss of the animals has therefore indirectly led to loss of some of these critical fungi.

Digging mammals can also reduce the amount of combustible plant material within a landscape, possibly altering fire regimes.

And if all this wasn’t enough to get us entirely depressed…

The following Conversation article is called: “Great Barrier Reef bleaching is just one symptom of ecosystem collapse across Australia”.

The article cites examples of frogs going extinct because of recent droughts, death by drought of the iconic floodplain forests of the Murray-Darling Basin, intensified logging and wildfires destroying old Mountain Ash trees. That creates a crisis for animals who depend on them, including the already endangered possum. 

The collapse of Mountain Ash forests threatens Leadbeater’s Possum with extinction.

The collapse of Mountain Ash forests threatens Leadbeater’s Possum with extinction. 

Source: Greens MPs/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The Millennium Drought also pushed bird communities of southern Australia over the edge. And this is on the “back of historic declines primarily due to land clearings”. Two-thirds of bird species in southern Australia have declined substantially as the drought took hold. The assumption, or hope, was that these declines were part of a natural cycle, and that the drought’s end would bring things back to normal. This did not happen.

Australia and Climate Change

Carbon emissions, rising temperatures and natural disasters

Australia is one of the greatest contributors to climate change, as well as one of the countries most affected by it.


The flood event unfolding in Queensland as I am writing (February, 2019) follows on one of the worst heat spells the continent had experienced. Additionally, huge unmangeable fires have been devastating the land in recent years. The mayor of Richmond, John Wharton, said after 300,000 cows died: “There are a lot of broken-hearted people. Emotionally, we are not doing very well.”

Dead cattle at Eddington Station in Queensland, Feb 8th. Photo: Rachel Anderson

300,000 cows died in Queensland’s floods when the Ross River dam floodgates were allowed to open. 


Overall, a rise in average temprature of  1°C has been recorded in the continent over the last 50 years, which is twice the rate as over the previous 50 years.

One indication of the effect of climate change is the moving south of the Goider Line, that was designed to separate cultivable land from the unproductive interior. The Goider Line was set in the 1860s following numerous disastrous bankrupcies and agricultural failures in the mid 19th century.  


Despite all that, Australia has one of the highest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the world. Comprising 0.3% of the world’s population, it produces 1.3% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and is the 11th highest in the world per capita (data 2009). Transportation distances account for some of that, including cross-continental and overseas animal shipments. 

Australia is a highly urban country. The majority of the population lives in just 5 cities. Perth is the biggest isolated city in the world. Several kilometers from the coast, anywhere, starts the “outback” or the “bush”, where only 60,000 people live on a vast area, 80% of the land area of the continent.

Is Australia sustainable? Carbon emissions per unit of energy, different countries.Carbon emissions per unit of energy, different countries. 


Renewable energies

With this much land and that much sun, solar energy would make good sense, but is still slow in coming, though considered a “growing industry“. The country depends mostly on its cheap coal reserves for its energy needs.

However, if you watched the exciting National Geographic series Outback Truckers, you might have seen huge wind turbines being transported on super-long trucks to various parts of the country. Australia had 76 operating wind farms in 2015located in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. 

Australia's biggest wind turbine blades trucked 530km to far west NSW wind farm 

Concerned citizen groups call, among other things, to stop the cruel and carbon-costly animal transports . The live-export trade is in the top 40 CO2 emitters in Australia. According to the article, bringing this industry to an end would be the equivalent of removing 320,000 cars from the roads.

Which leads to the next and more hopeful topic: 

Movements for Re-Definition, and is Australia Sustainable?

Australians are increasingly aware of their history, environment and the need for change. Some even try to re-define what it is to be an Australian!

Revised (pre)history: Pascoe 

There are new emerging views on the natural state of the land at the time of colonization and on the nature of the aboriginal culture at the time. New historical insights affect contemporary thinking. 

Bruce Pascoe’s study of early settlers’ journals indicates that Australia’s land was far more fertile when Europeans first landed than it is today. The vast swaths of the country now considered an inhospitable desert were, in fact, “meticulously and successfully managed by Aboriginal societies for thousands of years.” 

“They knew how to conserve water and soil, and the proof of this was that Europeans…described how the grass was higher than the saddles on their horses”.

In an in-depth study of early settlers diaries, Bruce Pascoe deduces that Australia’s aborigines, usually considered to be exclusive hunter-gatherers, had actually developed agriculture and lived in villages.  Archeological evidence shows that they had even used grindstones 15,000 years before the Egyptians did, making them the first bakers!

According to Pascoe, Europeans spread mythoses about the primitivity of the natives to justify their colonization and genocide. Now, he states, they have to learn from native practices how to save the land they had destroyed. By depicting the natives as nomadic and themselves as homesteaders, they saw a right to call the land their own. The villages were destroyed.

Revised (pre)history: Gammage

Bill Gammage, another historian, describes how the early settlers saw magnificent tall trees, the second-tallest in the world to the American Redwoods. They saw meadows and fields. They were deceived by the appearance into thinking that the land was highly productive.

In a book called “The biggest Estate on Earth“, Bill Gammage describes native practices of managing a land early European settlers described as “park-like”, or “a big estate”.

Large trees were carefully situated within pampered grassland, providing sustenance and shelter to an array of grazing animals.” 

Revising the diet: “Can we be Australians without eating native food?”

Some Australians call for drastic changes, especially in their eating habits.

Two distinguished ecologists call on Australians to eat local – swap sheep and cows for kangaroos and camels to help the environment” . Diversifying the meat diet would be both ecologically beneficial and economically smart.

Another radical article calls for a drastic “redefinition” of “Australianism” : Can we be Australians without eating Indigenous Food

“Australian food” means plants, fruits and animals that have grown in the land and sustained the indigenous people for over 50,000 years. “If we eat only the food brought by the first settlers and all those who followed, can we call ourselves Australian?”

The British arrived with an intact culture, including their cuisine. They brought the fruit, vegetables and livestock from back home, and ignored local diets entirely. Their foods and food culture were imposed on their new land from the outset. Today, the original inhabitatns are suffering the worst from the consequences.

Europeans ignored the intricate environmental management the indigenous peoples operated.

According to Gammage, for the original inhabitants “theology is fused with ecology”.

For around 150 years the colonists produced European foods for Europeans. Or as “The Conversation” puts it: 

European Australians lived on, not in, this continent. 

Today, Australian restaurants serve foods from multiple cuisines, but local foods are still mostly ignored, as they have been for 250 years. 

A revised Australia Day

The “Conversation” article quoted above suggests celebratinge Australia Day with a mixed meal of Australian and introduced foods, shared by all. Thanks would be given to the indigenous inhabitants for taking care of the land for over 50,000 years. They call it an act of “culinary reconciliation”. 

Bill Gammage ends his book, “The Biggest Estate on Earth” with the following plea:

We have a continent to learn. If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.

“The Converstaion” on its part suggests that

One way of achieving this may well be to sit down as brothers and sisters and share a meal of native foods.

A revised economy – can Australia be sustainable?

On the other end of the options spectrum is Jared Diamond’s closing paragraph for the chapter “Signs of Hope and change” (pp. 409-16). He says that while 60% of Australia’s land area and 80% of its human water use are dedicated to agriculture, the value of agriculture relative to other sectors of the economy has been shrinking. By the time of writing it contributed less than 3% of the GNP … This is “a huge allocation of land and scarce water to an enterprise of such low value” (p. 413).

Further, over 99% of this agricultural land makes hardly a dent in Australia’s economy. 80% of agricultural profits derive from less than 0.8% of the land, mostly in the southwest and southeast corners and in eastern Queensland. These are areas favored by geologic processes in terms of nutrients and rain.

The simplest way for Australia to fulfill its stated commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emmisions would be to eliminate its cattle! ...It would be a "first" for the modern world if a government voluntarily decided to phase out much of its agricultural enterprise, in anticipation of future problems, before being forced in desperation to do so.

That fits right in with the message I read on a newspaper clip posted in a small Ecuadorian restaurant so many years ago – that the world should better switch to a predominantly plant-based diet voluntarily rather than being forced to by adversity…

My Humble Take

It’s a global cuisine by now

Truthfully, I see a slim chance of Australians switching to indigenous diets on a large scale, although there are good signs some are starting to be integrated into the mainstream.

Fruitcake made with native ingredients, such as quandong and wattleseed, by Rayleen Brown from Kungkas Can Cook in Alice SpringsFruitcake made with native ingredients, such as quandong and wattleseed, by Rayleen Brown from Kungkas Can Cook in Alice Springs


Australia is a unique case because of its size and isolation. Cuisines world-over are mixed, and crops had been moving around for a long time. This could not be reversed anymore. Sufficient to say that potatoes, tomatoes, corn and chilli peppers came from the Americas, and wheat from the Middle East.

Changes in attitude

Yet several changes might bring some relief to the Australian environment and other highly interefered-with ecosystems. A lot of this has to do with attitude:

  • Diminishing meat consumption of all sources will allow lands used for fodder, like corn and soy, and lands used for pasture, to be redesignated to raise vegetables, grains, fruit, or even lay fallow, return to Nature, have native vegetation and fauna get a new chance on life.
  • Increasing consumption of locally-grown foods, indigenous or introduced, to decrease transportation costs and carbon emissions.
  • Changing the attitudes to what is esthetic. Nature has never been “neat”, “clean”, homogenous or sterile, yet the beauty of natural landscapes is still unsurpassed. In my humble opinion, a “messy” landscape with plants and animals beats sterile meticulous lawns, golf courses and cleared pastures anytime. A germaphobe Trump, with his idea of “cleaning the floors of the forests” is not just ignorant, but dangerous. Unfortunately, this is more or less what previous Australian governments forced farmers to do (see “Mining Australia – clearings” above) with dire consequences.
  •  Minimizing intereference. We simply do not understand and will never understand all the intricate interconnecting factors operating in a natural setting (see the mycorrhiza example above). It is, therefore, better to try and keep our footprints on Nature as light as possible. Mutliple dissertations and master theses could be written about any given ecosystem, but they will never cover the ground, nor be able to give us the “correct” guidelines on how to act in an optimal way in the real world… 
  • Primeval fear of Alien Nature has to be replaced with the very real fear of the Death of Nature. We are now closer to option 2 than to option 1 (more chances of us exterminating sharks altogether than of sharks killing a human…). And, yes, I agree with Carolyn Merchant that there is a gender bias informing the sweeping use of saw chains, bulldozers, trawl nets and chemicals on our natural environments…

A need for new ways of thinking

Clearing further lands for beef pastures should be avoided. Live shipments should hopefully be terminated. But as to the sheep, rabbits, foxes, horses, camels ravaging the Australian wilderness and farmlands – alas… Milk that has spilled, would not easily return into the bottle. Regarding native species that were displaced or exterminated and land managemaent generally, new thinking and actions are called for.

Innovative, technological advancement can play a role. For example, Israeli drip systems are making headway  in Australia, saving water and preventing salinization!

Some choose to change their life-style altogether! A quick Google search brings up multiple results for eco-villages and eco-living opportunities in Australia. The Narara community north of Sidney, and the award-winning Currumbin eco-village in Queensland are two examples.

I’ll repeat here what I said in my post about the Northern Isles – it is not necessary to live in a community or belong to a spiritual path in order to save the environment. This kind of living style is suitable for some people but not for all. Yet, traditional farmers can make a change by diversifying their crops, by using less intrusive and aggressive technologies on their lands. City people can modify their diets and buy produce grown by local, ecologically-oriented producers. Everything adds up.

The alternative is to continue business as usual and bear the consequences for good and for bad…

But – to end on a hopeful, optimistic note:  

Movements of Rejuvenation

Reforestation, afforestation, revegetation

All the way, from individuals to NGOs to the government, people are nowadays starting to replant and rejuventate the abused lands.

The organization “Greening Australia” reports they have so far suceeded to have 500 million native plants established, 330,000 hectares habitat restored, 1.3 million tonnes carbon sequestered, 20 flagship threatened Animals conserved, 2,000 hectares gullies restored, 1,000 hectares wetlands restored, 6,600 landholders engaged, 100 indigenous partnerships, 3,000 indigenous trainees, 12,500 volunteers involved, 50-80% improvement in reef water quality!!! And they have ambitious plans for 2030!

The government on its part is planning to plant 20 million trees by 2020. It offers incentives to farmers to plant on lands that have been used for grazing, cropping or been fallow for the last five years. 

Australian individuals are involved in huge reforestation projects, but a lot of this is outside of Australia…  Tony Rinaudo planted 240 million trees in West Africa!  Engineer Susan Graham is planning to plant a billion trees a year worldwide, using a special drone she developed. The drone can scan the land, identify ideal places to grow trees, and then fire germinated seeds into the soil. Her company is called BioCarbon Engineering. She ran a pilot in NSW trying to rehabilitate lands once used by coal mines. “We’ve had quite a lot of interest in Australia and they see … a benefit in terms of saving cost and time and being able to do a better job of restoring their ecosystems…

Project “Carbon Neutral” had been planting and helping companies reduce emissions since 2001. They plant biodiverse habitats that sequester carbon, restore devastated habitats and save native wildlife. The benefits are environmental, social (employing indigenous people) and economic.

Every move in the right direction counts!

A Note on Sources

Many articles quoted above have apperaed in “The Conversation”, a scientific publication about Australian matters, written in journalistic language for the wider public. It has a high academic rigor, but the articles are very readable.

I’m also frequently referencing Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse“. My copy is from 2006 and the references show in the text as “JD pp. xxx”. Publisher: Penguin Books, London. 

Ann Curthoys article, “Expulsion, Exodus and Exile in White Australian Historical Mythology” was published in Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 23, issue 61.

Also, a highly recommended extra reading on aboriginal culture and way of being in the universe: Voices of the First Day  by Lawrol. Publisher: Inner Traditions International, Vermont.

If you liked this and the other posts in this series, you might be interested in my upcoming post:

The Amazon and The Soul of the World. 

Keep updated on my new posts.


This Post Has One Comment

  1. It was interesting to read your comments about Australia and sustainability…from my experience in Australia I felt that there was very high awareness about ecological issues. I remember seeing the slogan “There is no planet B”…I thought it was a clear message to us all to wake up to the damage we are doing to our one and only planet A. Thanks for your insightful post, keep on informing us…

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