According to Californian professor and Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond, the reason the Maya civilisation failed is because the elites lived in walled cities, insulated from the environmental degradation which led to their eventual demise. He sees a similar problem in the Western world today with elites living in gated communities, standing aloof from the rest of their society and the world.
But are these privileged ghettoes the problem? Is it an issue that our elites don’t see the environmental problems that exist? Or perhaps, is it that they see problems that don’t exist?
When Diamond visited Australia earlier this year to promote his new book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive he told an audience of about 850 people - including government ministers, journalists, business executives and myself - at Brisbane’s Performing Arts Complex that we should phase out agriculture altogether in Australia. The professor was frequently clapped and cheered during his hour-long address.
I understand the message and mood were similar at the Sydney Writers Festival where Diamond spoke at two closing ceremonies (two because the first was sold out) and in Melbourne were he gave the Deakin Lecture, replayed on ABC Radio National’s Science Show.
An entire chapter in the book is devoted to Australia with the prognosis that the Australian environment is generally unproductive and has been irreversibly damaged by European farming, forestry and fisheries practices.
Diamond states that we import most of our food. This may be the perception, but the reality is we export much more than we import. Last financial year Australia exported (pdf file 625KB) fish, meat, grain and so on, worth $22 billion and imported food and beverage to a value of $6 billion.
He also says Australian farmers are inefficient and in Australia we need to cultivate more land to produce the same quantity of food as our overseas competitors. The reality, however, is that Australian agriculture is highly productive (pdf file 109KB) with some commodities achieving double the world average on a tonnes per hectare basis, including for rice and cotton.
Wheat is one of the few crops with a yield well below the world average. This reflects the economics of wheat growing in Australia. Wheat in Australia is not irrigated and inputs are low with better land used to grow higher value crops - we have a low yield by design and for good ecological and commercial reasons.
Diamond suggests Australian agriculture is on the verge of collapse, yet we had a record wheat harvest just two years ago. The bottom-line is that yields continue to increase for most crops and with the adoption of minimum tillage the impact of farming on the environment continues to decrease.
Diamond writes that Australians are cutting down too many trees and as a consequence Australia’s forests will disappear “long before our coal and iron reserves”. He states that wood chip from Tasmanian forests is being sold to Japan for $7 per tonne. Check the statistics at the government’s Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (pdf file 870KB) and you will find that in December 2004 a total volume of 1,413,300 tonnes of wood chip was exported to Japan at a value of $214,147,000 which gives a price for wood chip of $152 per tonne.
His chapter on Australia is full of errors. By ignoring the evidence and suggesting there is everywhere a crisis, Diamond spreads misinformation and makes it difficult to identify the real environmental issues that need to be addressed. How could he get so much, so wrong?
Diamond seems to have gleaned much of his information from environmental organisations and their policy documents which are notoriously misleading. For example, during the last federal election Greenpeace, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the Wilderness Society didn't only campaign to close down the Tasmanian forest industry. Their joint efforts (pdf file 500KB) also included a “Save the Murray” campaign, by taking water from irrigators. They claimed, “The once mighty Murray River is dying. On current trends, Adelaide’s drinking water from the Murray River will be too salty to drink two days out of five by 2020”.
In reality salt levels in the Murray have halved - that’s right halved - since 1982 due in part to the construction of salt interception schemes as well as improved land management practices.
Australia’s farmers and foresters are under intense pressure from environmental activists who run campaigns targeting the emotions of our elite, with the aim of closing down industries in rural and regional Australia. I use the term “elite” in the broadest sense to refer to tertiary educated Australians, who tend to live in the leafy suburbs of metropolitan Australia, and who form the professional and public service cohort who make, influence or implement most of the significant policy decisions in Australia. In repeating the misinformation Diamond nurtures a growing divide between this group and farmers, fishers and timber workers who live and work in distant rural and regional Australia.
I’m a member of that elite and I live in the leafy Brisbane electorate of Indooroopilly. The junk mail from the Wilderness Society on the issue of tree clearing in the lead up to the last state election was relentless. A clear impression was given that the last bit of scrub (expressed in football fields) was about to be bulldozed in western Queensland. Yet the hard data indicates that even during the height of clearing, during the 1990s, there was a net increase in forest cover of 5 million hectares in western Queensland. In fact, there is more tree cover in Queensland today than when Europeans arrived 200 years ago.
In short, Australia’s elite are repeatedly being fed “cods-wallop” and academics like Jared Diamond who are paid to determine the truth, keep repeating the propaganda. As a result decisions are made which are not in the interests of the environment or Australia as whole and huge amounts of taxpayer’s money is wasted.
At the Brisbane lecture, Diamond said that in writing Collapse he began to realise the extent to which the elite can often insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions and how this can lead to the collapse of complex societies. Australia's elite tend to be well insulated from the consequences of the environmental campaigns they generally support.
Over the past few years The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has successfully orchestrated a campaign to close down the line fishery of the Great Barrier Reef where the yield is arguably well below sustainable levels at 17 kg/km². At other Pacific reefs the annual harvest averages about 7,700 kg/km².
As a consequence of the campaigning, the Queensland Government now has a structural adjustment bill likely to exceed $300 million to pay damages to fishermen who can no longer fish.
Our elite aren’t, however, going to stop eating coral trout. They will just buy fish sourced from overseas. In Australia, fishermen are only permitted to use hook and line techniques to catch coral trout, in contrast to our north where many fishermen still use cyanide, dynamite and gill nets. So we have found a new exportable product - environmental degradation. We unnecessarily restrict fishing activities on the basis of manufactured environmental need and then buy the same products from overseas interests who are in fact vandalising their environment.
Australia’s elite really have forgotten where their milk, bread and trout come from, and they have no idea that their own fishers, foresters and farmers are among the most efficient and environmentally-friendly in the world. Sure there are remaining problems including overgrazing in our rangelands, but these issues are best approached with our minds open to the evidence and all the options.
Jared Diamond says it is an issue that our elite are locking themselves away in gated communities: that the wealthy and powerful are increasingly physically separated from the rest of society. He’s right, it is a problem because isolated and insulated our elite too easily fall victim to fads. Diamond helps construct and reinforce a divide which is not just physical, but mental.
In repeating misinformation about the state of the environment in rural and regional Australia, Diamond helps build a ghetto in the mind. As a consequence Australians are diverted from finding real solutions to those environmental problems that remain.
Jennifer Marohasy reviews in more detail Jared Diamond's chapter on Australia in Australia's Environment Undergoing Renewal, Not Collapse here.