Environmental issues in Australia

There shouldn’t be too many environmental issues in Australia. 

Just 22 million people live on a continental land mass that covers 7.69 million km2 and with most of these people living in a handful of cities, human population density in Australia is some of the lowest in the developed world. 

The unspoken rule of thumb is that ‘where the people are is where the environment is challenged’ and so Australia should have few major environmental issues.

Modernity is also a recent arrival in Australia. Unlike in Europe where centuries of agriculture and human use of natural capital have altered every landscape, the Australian bush is closer to its natural state, especially in the dry interior.

There are many grazing animals but arable land covers 471,550 km2 or just 6.2% of the continent.

Embedded in the European psyche are rolling fields, hedges and dry-stone walls. Europeans connect to meadows with livestock grazing contentedly. Few have any notion of what the original forested landscape looked like.

Australians [many of whom are of European decent] have an affinity for the outback in its raw state — rugged country that is harsh rather than cute. Perhaps this is because there is a much shorter history of landscape alteration or because Aboriginal peoples are able to remind everyone of the importance of ‘country’. 

Either way the focus of environmental issues in Australia is often about the environment itself rather than what humans do to it. 

The issues related to pollution either from industry or agriculture are localised — with the notable exception of nutrient runoff affecting the barrier reef. 

Smog is not a problem. 

There are places to stash waste — the Woodlawn facility south of Sydney is a former open cut mine that has several decades of capacity to burry the city's trash.

Soils are already old making any degradation from agricultural practices and land clearing a challenge but less acute than in places where the soil begins in an organic rich and productive state. 

This means Australians tend to worry about 

  • Floods
  • Wildfires
  • Droughts
  • Cyclones and severe storms
  • Introduced pests and diseases
  • Protection of native forests
  • Koalas
  • The Great Barrier Reef

In Australia the current environmental issues are actually about the environment and most issues cannot be stopped. It is possible to prevent man-made pollution but not a cyclone. All that can be done in the face of damaging winds and flooding rain is to prepare for their effects.

A drought cannot be predicted or avoided. All people can do is adapt and mitigate against any adverse effects.

There is concern about biodiversity loss and much was done to curb land clearing and the logging of old growth forests. And for a while at least there was even an appetite for climate change issues.

Mining and export of mineral resources underpins the Australian economy — mining and the environmental footprint is an environmental issue, most recently creating a land use conflict between farming and fracking for natural gas.

Environmental issues in Australia — Water

Water is a significant environmental issues in Australia

Available surface freshwater is limited especially away from the wetter eastern seaboard. Dams supply the majority of domestic water supplies but there is constant conflict between industrial water for irrigation and locally for mining, and environmental water.

The problem is to decide how much water can be extracted from drainage systems that are characterized by low or no flows and occasional flood. It is especially challenging for the character of the natural systems on the vast floodplains came about from this dry with occasional wide flood pattern.

Water allocations from the Murray-Darling basin — over 1 million km2 of mostly ephemeral streams and a few larger rivers — is still debated.

It would be a lot worse if not for the great artesian basin and a host of smaller groundwater aquifers that supply rural and remote communities with water for people and livestock. Until recently most boreholes were uncapped allowing warm and sometimes salty water to fill a trough then overflow onto the landscape. 

How much of this ancient water has been wasted in this way is anyone’s guess.

Future generations will be astonished at the profligacy.

Pragmatology

Australia is one of the few places in the world where controversial environmental issues could be resolved. 

Communities are well-informed, there is stable governance and a mature, successful economy. Knowledge of the environment is strong and technology is accessible everywhere.

There is reliance on minerals [especially on coal-fired power stations] and a host of severe weather conditions to endure but if anywhere could cut down the list of environmental issues in Australia.

Instead we see the ostrich syndrome. 

Somehow when people are given time and resources to fix a problem they dither, argue or simply ignore it. Give them a crisis and they often respond heroically.

Perhaps this is the human condition. 

Australia does have one characteristic that is not in its favour. Most of the people live within a short drive of the coast, leaving just a few as custodians of vast expanse of the interior.

This separation creates an awareness gap. Urbanites tend not to fully understand the difficulties and environmental issues in Australia rural areas or the extent of the issues.



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