While the above three approaches ideally should proceed in parallel, each reinforcing the others, there has been an increasing tendency to see them as sequential developments—that we have ‘been there and done that’ with landcare, and to a lesser extent the regional delivery model. In my view this is a grave error. There is much to be gained from taking the best elements of the landcare approaches of the Hawke-Keating era and rejuvenating them for the next decade and beyond, as part of a more comprehensive re-think of agriculture, environment and natural resource management in this country. The drivers are compelling: we are already in an incredibly difficult climatic situation, in southern Australia in particular, and we are in a period of rapid, multifaceted, even bewildering change that is likely to intensify.
Let’s take the food system as an example. Healthy environments, healthy farming systems, healthy foods and healthy people are intricately intertwined.
If current trends in human population and consumption patterns continue, the world will need to produce almost twice as much food by 2050, in a rapidly changing climate, with declining production of oil, and rising prices for energy, water, fertilisers, and soon, carbon. The era of abundant, cheap fossil fuels is over. Traditional avenues of expanding production though clearing, irrigating and cultivating more land are narrowing, and food is now competing with energy for land and water resources. Moreover, consumers in developed countries are increasingly concerned about the quality, safety, environmental impact, human health and animal welfare aspects of their food.
Food systems are at a crunch point where the climate, water, energy and health agendas collide—often with collateral damage for rural communities, rivers and biodiversity. We need food and farming systems to be much more efficient (in terms of water, carbon and energy), productive, resilient and healthy. This imperative has huge implications for the environment and natural resources, in urban and peri-urban areas as well as in traditional agricultural landscapes.
Planks for Reform
One of the key implications is that we need to re-invest in ways of keeping people at a grassroots community level involved, informed and inspired to develop and implement new (and maybe old) ways of producing healthy food, efficiently and humanely while looking after the environment. This will be technically challenging, so there needs to be a strong underpinning platform of knowledge, and it will require policy frameworks that are comprehensive, cohesive, powerful and durable.
Taking these threads of People, Knowledge and Policy, a new platform for reforming environment and natural resource management in Australia could be built on seven planks:
Landcare. Social capital and natural capital are interdependent—you cannot sustain one for long without the other. If landcare did not exist, we would have to invent it. Our great opportunity in environmental and natural resource management is to build and energise a framework for partnership between government, and the community and private sectors, that leads the world. This will help us to target and get the best possible return on the large public and private investments that are needed to sustain our natural capital—our water and energy supplies, the soils that underpin our food system, our unique biodiversity and very special places. Such a platform would encourage and support the efforts of grassroots volunteers across the country, and involve hundreds of thousands of people and students in activities that help them to both better understand their local environments and the processes affecting them, and to take local actions that make a practical difference.
Regional delivery. We have made big strides over the last decade in building ‘the regional model’ for natural resource management that seeks to take a more strategic approach at a landscape or catchment scale, and a more integrated approach across different issues, while maintaining a community base. Australia (especially in the Intensive Land Use Zone where the vast majority of us live) desperately needs environmentally literate organisations at a scale larger than local governments but smaller than states, that can be instrumental in land use planning, in directing landscape-scale restoration projects, in supporting and guiding community efforts, and as ‘the keeper of the long view’ as custodians of community and scientific knowledge. This regional framework is crucial, and we need to take the time to get it right, not undermine it before it has had a real chance to deliver.
Knowledge. The knowledge agenda is fundamental to better resource and environmental management in Australia. Better management and use of what we already know, much greater engagement of Australian citizens in gathering environmental information, a genuine revolution in environmental education using latest technologies, much better tracking of our progress, and much smarter ways of managing our research efforts in generating new knowledge for changing times are all essential elements of a knowledge agenda that supports innovation and engagement, and that helps us to make best use of limited public and private investment.
Policy agenda. The policy agenda is where everything comes together and where the new leadership is clearly articulated. We are seeing rapid and unprecedented convergence in the policy imperatives for water, energy and food systems in a drying, warming climate. We know we need radical reform to drought policy to reward preparedness and to build resilience, rather than propping up unviable and unsustainable practices. The Victorian fires are a terrible marker of the need to rethink the very basis of where and how we live in this continent, and of the nature of resilience and how to reinforce it. The levels of community understanding (‘environmental literacy’) about a factor as fundamental as the Fire Danger Index, show how far we have yet to go.
Policy Principles for the Future
The Prime Minister’s big picture issues and commitments from the 2007 election and his more recently enunciated values of equity, sustainability and community provide an important ethical base for an environmental agenda. However, we also need policy principles that act as reinforcing mesh in building a more coherent and cohesive package.
Building resilience. Resilience is a key facet of sustainability, particularly in an era of intensifying climate change. It refers to the extent to which a given system (an ecosystem, farming system, human community or whatever) can withstand, survive and recover from severe shocks or disturbance, without moving to a permanently altered state. Aspects of resilience include flexibility, localised solutions and leadership, strong networks and links, and diversity. Resilience can be built, enabling individuals and communities to bounce back from adversity.
Balancing centralism and subsidiarity. Over recent years under both the Howard and Rudd administrations, centralisation has ruled in Australian environmental management. Many of the drivers are compelling, and the responses have been understandable: for both the carbon and water agendas it is obvious that we don’t need fragmented, inconsistent or incompatible approaches across state borders. But there are emerging signs that the pendulum has swung too far. We need to build capacity, and to devolve resources and authority, down to the levels where the vast majority of land, water and vegetation management decisions are made.
Re-engaging stakeholders and devolving responsibility. Closely allied with the previous principle, it is clear that environmental problems won’t be fixed, and new challenges won’t be tackled effectively, if everybody thinks it is someone else’s problem. There is a grave risk, given the global nature of the climate challenge, that people and stakeholder groups feel disempowered, paralysed and simply disengage. Now more than ever, we need to be investing in processes and frameworks, like landcare and regional/catchment bodies, that help individuals, communities and stakeholder groups to take some ownership of the issues directly affecting them, and to access information and constructive support.
Taking the time necessary to sort through complex, contested, connected issues. In Canberra’s political hothouse, 20 days is a long time and 20 years (seven or eight electoral cycles) is an eternity. But the issues we are tackling will play out over decades and centuries. Many aspects of our responses need to be far-sighted, hard-wired into our systems of government and decision-making, and durable over many administrations. These things take time to work out, and it is important to allocate the time and the resources to get them right. The British government’s approach over the last two years in developing a new food strategy for the 21st century, driven by the Cabinet Office and supported by universities, industry stakeholders, NGOs and think tanks such as Chatham House, is a good example.
Building, sustaining and using a comprehensive evidence base. Evidence-based policy obviously requires an evidence base, yet our most recent national State of the Environment Report concluded that our environmental evidence base is so poor that it is difficult to tell if we are going forwards or backwards on most measures of environmental health. We are finally taking big strides with water and carbon accounting, although they should be better integrated, and the terrestrial land and biodiversity legs of the stool are largely missing. New technologies mean that we can get a comprehensive picture of trends in our environment faster and cheaper than ever before. Linkages with the new broadband roll-out, and community engagement and environmental education efforts, would enable Australia to build the world’s best ‘environmental dashboard’. This would help us see where we are headed, how fast, with how much petrol left in the tank, and a decent set of warning lights and stress indicators.
Investing in skills, knowledge, innovation and leadership. We need to develop new systems of food production for a much more challenging world, that make far more efficient use of resources while being kinder on the environment and delivering healthier product mixes to the consumer. This is a major technical challenge, that will require world-leading research, technological innovation and sophisticated knowledge systems that best capture and make accessible what is already known, and new information as it emerges. Systems make things possible, but people make things happen. Agricultural education in Australia is a basket case, with declining enrolments and entry scores at tertiary level and a fragmented approach at vocational level. We need to be attracting the best and brightest people of all ages to work in this area and to be providing world-class education and training opportunities. We also need to be investing in leadership at all levels to develop people who are prepared to think and act outside the square, and bring people with them in developing new approaches.
Budgeting for longer term stability. One of the striking features of Bob Hawke’s Landcare announcement in 1989 was its bipartisan dimension—not just the political parties but also the rich symbolism and political potency of the ACF-NFF partnership. Another was the commitment of funding for a decade. Short-term funding cycles, and the even shorter-term employment contracts that they engender, are incredibly corrosive for any attempt to build a stable long-term platform at a community level. We need to make a national long-term commitment to budgeting for ‘Repairs and Maintenance’ of our natural capital base—both ecological and social infrastructure—just as we would expect any prudent, well-run business to do for its own crucial infrastructure. Rolling decadal budget cycles would be a good start.
A new approach to managing Australia’s natural capital needs to be developed against a challenging backdrop: rapid environmental change, increasingly difficult climatic conditions, struggling food systems, a rural sector under pressure, frustrations within the environment movement and the wider community seeking more emphasis on sustainability, and a seismic shift in the relationship between the state and the market in western liberal democracies.
Right now—a time of flux, of rapid change and of re-thinking accepted norms—is exactly the time to be implementing a new approach to managing our natural capital. A bipartisan commitment to rejuvenate the landcare movement, building on the local and regional community base for environmental action over the next decade, would be an apt way to mark the 20 year anniversary of the Hawke government’s launch of the Decade of Landcare. It would also give tangible effect to the Prime Minister’s values of equity, community and sustainability.