Saturday, March 12, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - Diamond, primary production & the environment

The sheer scale of the Japanese earthquake is hard to comprehend - apparently 160 times more powerful than the Christchurch quake. My thoughts are with all those affected.

My wife wondered whether the various earthquakes were in any way linked. I thought not, but there is apparently a clustering effect. I quote:  

The director of the Australian Seismological Centre in Canberra, Kevin McCue, said yesterday's quake in Japan, the largest recorded there, would not have been linked to the one that struck Christchurch last month....

However, Professor McCue said earthquakes on plate boundaries often came in quick succession. ''We had a sequence of earthquakes in 1906 where there were at least six 'grade earthquakes' around the Pacific. And now we've had Chile last year and this one,'' he said.

''It's something we observe in all extreme events - they are clustered in time. That's what we observe they do but we don't have an answer for it.''

In a comment on Rebuilding the blogging village, Ramana wrote:

I have just finished reading Jared Diamond's "Collapse" which includes a detailed appraisal of Australia. While I was reading it I was wondering why your posts do not talk about what should be of great importance to Australians. Or did I come to your blog much after you had exhausted what you had to say about the matters raised there?

It is a sign of lack of knowledge on my part, but I had not heard of the book and had to look it up on Wikipedia. As I said to Ramana in reply, I write on the type of issues raised by Professor Diamond all the time. However, the linkages would not be clear - the posts are spread over time and across blogs. For that reason, I want to use this muse to pull themes together.

As so often happens, a comment stimulates my own thinking!

I am not giving links to my own writing. This would make it all too complicated.

Overview of Diamond's book

According to the Wikipedia entry, Diamond's book deals with "societal collapses involving an environmental component, and in some cases also contributions of climate change, hostile neighbors, and trade partners, plus questions of societal responses" (p. 15). In writing the book Diamond intended that its readers should learn from history (p. 23).

Diamond himself summarised the book this way:

This book employs the comparative method to understand societal collapses to which environmental problems contribute. My previous book (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies), had applied the comparative method to the opposite problem: the differing rates of buildup of human societies on different continents over the last 13,000 years. In the present book focusing on collapses rather than buildups, I compare many past and present societies that differed with respect to environmental fragility, relations with neighbors, political institutions, and other "input" variables postulated to influence a society's stability. The "output" variables that I examine are collapse or survival, and form of the collapse if collapse does occur. By relating output variables to input variables, I aim to tease out the influence of possible input variables on collapses.

The book contains a full chapter on Australia. Apparently this focuses on environmental degradation.

Given that I have not read the book, the remarks that follow should not be read as a critique of Professor Diamond, just a summary of the views I have formed and written about. 

Environment vs culture

Wikipedia states that In his review in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell highlighted the way in which Diamond's approach differs from traditional historians by focusing on environmental issues rather than cultural questions. I blinked a little at this one.

When I first studied prehistory all those years ago, Australian prehistory was dominated by the Cambridge School. This focused on the environment as the determining factor in traditional prehistoric life. The Aborigines responded to their environment. Culture reflected environment.

Even then, it was clear to me that this could not be an absolute. Geography honours at school focused on Asia and economic and human development. Here I found the work of the American writer E.W. Zimmerman. In his 1951 work World resources and industries: a functional appraisal of the availability of agricultural and industrial materials he argued that the concept of a resource was a combination of the physical with technology and indeed perception. By implication, a resource was both a physical and cultural construct.

Under the influence of Isabel McBryde, the New England prehistory school had a strong ethnohistorical focus. I chose to do my honours thesis - an ethnohistorical study - on the economic structure of Aboriginal life. In the Aboriginal world as I saw it, economic life was affected by the environment but also affected that environment. Culture, the way of doing things, was to some degree an independent variable. 

Later Harry Lourandos, then at UNE, popularised the concept of intensification to explain the apparent growth in the Aboriginal population that began some 5,000 years ago. To Lourandos, the growth could only be explained by changes in culture, including social organisation.

All this was some time ago. Today, again, I write a fair about the relationships between environment, life and history because it links directly to my historical interests. You see why I blinked?

Environmental degradation, cultural change and social collapse

There can by no doubt that, as Professor Diamond argues, environmental degradation can lead to social collapse. Equally, and again as Professor Diamond argues, other factors can be involved as well. I don't think that it is meaningful to give some absolute weighting to any particular factor. Collapse is always society specific.

Again, I have written a fair bit on this. The posts on Greek history are examples. There we have the growth of trading societies collapsed from time to time by natural disasters and war. However, in this post I want to focus specifically on Australia.

The rise of systemic complexity

Over the last three years, I have written a fair bit on the challenges facing Australia. Part of my writing has been concerned with Australia's position in a changing world, more with what I see as a progressive decline in the effectiveness of Australia's institutions. Growing systemic complexity is central to this.

Part of this is linked to technology and is a world wide phenomenon. As I have outlined in some posts, as technology based systems become more complex, they become more rigid and vulnerable. However, a significant part of my concerns lies in culture, including social organisation.

Our management, political, policy and administrative structures have become so complex and mechanistic that we are in danger of choking on our own rules and administrative overhead. I see this as the most fundamental problem. We are a wealthy society and can afford the costs for the present, but it does make at least relative decline inevitable.

Environmental Degradation

Again, I haven't read Professor Diamond's book, so cannot comment on the detail of his chapter. I can only report on my own thoughts and writing on the question of the Australian environment and Australia's future.

Dealing with climate change first so that I can put this one aside, I wrote a number of posts trying to clarify my own thinking.

On the balance of probabilities I accepted that we had a problem that had to be dealt with, if only for precautionary reasons. I then tried to explore some of the options. Here I felt that we needed more discussion on options, a better understanding of choices - my discussion on carbon sequestration in soil is an example. I was also concerned at the simplistic nature of some of the discussion and proposed solutions.

It may be, as some have argued, that climate change will have particular adverse affects on this country's climate in terms of higher temperatures, lower rainfall and more frequent extremes. In addition, there may effects from rising sea levels.

I don't write about all this because I simply do not know. My feeling is that, beyond catastrophic change that might invalidate everything, Australia is wealthy enough and the time horizons long enough for the country to adapt.

What I do write about, if normally indirectly, are the possible effects on Australia of events beyond our shores. If the effects of climate change are as bad as sometimes projected, then what we do in this country is likely to be swamped by events elsewhere. On the worst doomsday scenario, the country is likely to be flooded with environmental refugees.   

If we put climate change aside, the reason I don't join in the type of discussion that Professor Diamond appears to promote, that many in Australia promote, is that I think it is just wrong. Australia simply doesn't face an environmental crisis of the type postulated.  It doesn't fit with the evidence as I know it. Worse, it twists the discussion. We do face choices, but those choices are not always as currently defined. We are already seeing some very silly decisions based on wrong policy specifications.

Personal Biases  

I grew up in the country. The country people I knew - those I referred to most recently in Agriculture, innovation & the individual - were very interested in environmental issues. I listened to discussions on issues such as land degradation, the need to improve country, to balance business and conservation issues, to preserve native species, to better manage catchments. Our shelves at home had books on environmental and land management issues. All this was before the environment qua environment became a central issue. I was an academic/townie kid, but the discussions helped form my views.

Central to those views  were the ideas that the farmer was responsible for the management of land for the future, that experimentation was important, that mistakes happened.

I also saw how views changed over time.

Clearing timber on properties led to erosion. By the 1950s, a suite of techniques were being promoted to address this, to keep water on the farm while preventing severe run-off.  

In 1949, the first aerial spreading of superphosphate in Australia occurred on the New England Tablelands. Within twenty years, native pastures had been replaced by improved pastures supported by top dressing of fertiliser. Carrying capacity drew dramatically, something that was very important when wool prices were declining in real terms. Then, in the 1980s, die back emerged. Suddenly graziers were worried about the death of gum trees on their properties.

Landowners and scientists worked out the that the problem was connected to a complex of factors all linked to land management. Grazing stopped regeneration, fewer trees meant more insects and fewer birds, the dreaded lerp appeared. Solutions were then slowly developed, centred especially on tree planting.

I could give other examples. My point is that land management has improved, and that much of that improvement has come from individual farmers and from experimentation and from cooperative action between farmers, scientists and Government agencies, much less from fiat imposed from on-high.

Blogging themes     

Now that I have outlined something about my own biases, I will turn to some of the themes in my writing. 

The first theme has been what I see as the growing disconnect between the Australian urban and especially metropolitan population and the country. The familiarity that once existed has become increasingly tenuous. The majority of the migrants that make up a quarter of the current Australian population rarely move outside the metropolitan centres. Even among the locally born, knowledge and understanding has been lost.

City people form views and have votes. In the absence of sustained popular protest in country regions - something else I have written on - the environmental views and policies that affect particular areas are increasingly dictated from outside. Further, there is a diminished awareness of the nature of choices, of trade-offs. 

I wrote of this one, for example, in the context of the Murray-Darling Basin and the drought. I suggested  that city dwellers needed to be aware of the economic implications of suggestions that agricultural use of water should be curtailed, with water focused on environment and town supply. These were easy suggestions because the costs were downstream - it would only be later that the effects would be felt in the city in terms (among other things) of higher food prices.

I have also written a fair bit on the environment wars, with a special focus on New England where environmental wars have been raging across the whole area. Again, my argument has centred on principles and choices.   

Another major theme has been the need to recognise Australia's diversity.

Australia is not uniform. The Murray-Darling Basin, for example, may be defined as a Basin, but it is actually two Basins with a number of rivers each with their own features. Further, in each river catchment within the overall basin, you also find considerable diversity. The point here is that when you adopt generalised solutions, you get quite differential on-ground effects.

Create a national water market, buy back water on market terms, and you may actually wipe out entire communities. By its nature, a market involves willing buyers and sellers who agree a price. Decisions are driven by money. But what do you do when, say, you buy sufficient water entitlements in an area that that the rest of the area collapses? I guess in market terms, you buy the rest at a lower price. Government then has to pick up the pieces.

My argument all along has been that we need to recognise this diversity. This leads me to my next theme.

The application of universal nostrums has led to some very silly results. I have tried to write about these. As a purely personal example, there is absolutely no rational way in a Sydney context to justify water restrictions created on "environmental" grounds that limited gardeners growing their own food while allowing people to fill swimming pools. In similar vein, when there is lots of water it is sensible to use it so long as there are no adverse effects. Saving it on universal grounds that we must conserve water does not make a lot of sense to me.

Connected with all this, there are a number of other areas that I have written on that link to the central themes: problems with loss of farming land on the outskirts of cities; the need to modify regulations to allow for new forms of living or life style - composting toilets, rain tanks, living in sheds; the need for decentralisation to better match population to environment; new foods, new life styles that better fit regional diversity.

Environmental management & the longer term

Turning now to the longer term, I know of no evidence, I stand to be corrected, that environmental problems connected with land management have got worse in Australia over the last thirty years. Here I am leaving aside Government managed land such as national parks where there have been specific problems.

Now here I need to be very precise in what I say. Yes, there are problems with things such as loss of certain species through habitat destruction. This was something that Professor Diamond talked about on his June 2000 visit to Australia. Yes, you can say that some rivers are degraded, although this raises benchmark issues. Yes, you can say that there are specific problems such as salinity. However, all this is beside the point in terms of the main thesis: is our management of the Australian land so bad that environmental problems will bring about societal collapse? I think that the answer is clearly no.

Roughly speaking, Australia presently feeds two people for every local. Further, there is considerable scope to expand production, especially in horticultural products. The reason we don't, the reason why we are importing increasing quantities of food, lies in economics, not the environment. Our primary producers can't make money in the face of international competition. If economics changes, so will production.

In these circumstances, it is actually very hard to see just how Australian environmental problems might lead to local disaster. If there were growing problems of environmental degradation of a sufficient scale, then one might argue the case. As I said, I know of no evidence for this.

If you postulate worst case climate change outcomes in combination with environmental degradation, then you might mount a stronger case. It is still hard to see it.

    Now it may be in all this that Professor Diamond has marshaled evidence that I am unaware of. I will have to read the book! Pending that, I will continue to meander along.


Anonymous said...

Jim, still absorbing this very interesting post, but just wanted to note down an urgent impression from the past hour or so's endless repeat of the damaged Japanese nuclear facility - specifically the 'puff' of an explosion.

I'm thinking any hope of nuclear being employed in Australia has now quite literally gone up in smoke. That will have huge ramifications - I believe.


Jim Belshaw said...

KVD, I hadn't seen it until I saw your comment and then shot to the TV. I suspect that you are right.