A normal week, another loss of koala habitat for new housing estates, of forest to provide jobs in the logging industry, of land clearance for gas development and agriculture. The litany of destruction is relentless. Australian governments march on with progress with billions of dollars for infrastructure to make the growing population more mobile, urban expansion. But there are much greater financial priorities.
Australia is participating in a worldwide biodiversity crisis, and the koala is a public face of this; the canary in the deteriorating mine of life. Thousands of species are threatened or have become extinct. The climate emergency is the main cause, but there are many others which emanate from economic growth and its consumption of natural resources.
Both the climate emergency and biodiversity loss threaten our health and wellbeing, for human life depends on a stable climate, water, biodiversity and productive land to provide food. This nation's biodiversity provides an important component of public and individual health. For example, our diminishing forests mitigate climate change, stabilise and purify our water supply and are a place for personal restoration and recreation.
Worldwide, no government is coping with the biodiversity loss. Some particularly right-wing governments are destructive through intent or ideology. President Bolsonaro of Brazil has a policy to clear swathes of the Amazon Forest for beef production. President Trump has repealed many regulations which protect biodiversity. Australia is indifferent, as evidenced by lack of national action and current Australian laws which provide an intricate veneer of state and federal protection allowing destruction to proceed under the ethos of economic growth as the priority.
Most politicians seem indifferent or cannot cope with the complexity or implications of the biodiversity emergency. Indeed for democracy to survive and be relevant, much of government may have to depend on independent scientific or technological organisations which can provide rational and practical solutions. Deniers of biodiversity science have not yet emerged so the government could act!
This may have been in the minds of the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law (APEEL), which in 2017 produced a comprehensive plan for laws to effectively protect biodiversity and the natural environment. The Panel recommended establishing a statutory National Sustainability Commission (NSC), of equivalent importance to that provided by the Reserve Bank. It would establish and monitor the evidence on Australia's sustainability and provide solutions for government which could be delivered nationwide by a national Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).
So what progress has there been in the past two years?
The Labor Party included both the NSC and EPA in its draft election platform but inexplicably dropped the NSC, presumably believing naively that this huge task could be managed from within the Department of the Environment - or because it might mean some loss of political control.
Then last year the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications inquired into Australia's faunal extinction crisis. It is not clear why this was limited to fauna; extinctions of plants and organisms such as creatures stabilising soils are equally important. The committee's deliberations were delayed by the election, but there has been an interim report which supported a national EPA and a round of further submissions is now completed.
Hopefully this committee will widen its horizon to the causes of species extinction and, in view of the urgency, recommend the government consider establishing an NSC - for its scientific expertise could help address the current failures of land, farming and biodiversity policy in rural and regional Australia. These are presently managed by ad hoc political responses to drought, flood and other decimations. Working with farmers' organisations, these expert analyses by the NSC could integrate sustainable food production with conservation of biodiversity.
The National Party members might consider turning their minds from resource development to the recent reports from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s special report Climate Change and Land ... and see the need for sustainability of the nation's rural sector to be prioritised. Then they can use their influence in government.
The rural and regional sector deserves better, for we depend upon them for food sustainability. The standing of farming might be recognised by acknowledging it as the most important national industry because it confers sustainability for Australia, and indeed for world food supplies which are currently falling. Individual farmers demonstrating education in sustainable land practice and biodiversity conservation might be acknowledged as stewards of the land and qualify for financial support to function under all adverse circumstances, divorced from the sometimes uncaring support of commercial banks. We note the Farmers' Federation reaction to the recent IPCC land report is positive.
The health and wellbeing of rural communities compares poorly with urban dwellers. Their mental health is beset by financial worries, uncaring resource companies using their land, lack of services and the need for a vision for their future based on respect and national needs. Indeed ultimately the health and wellbeing of all of us depends on the sustainability of our rural friends. This is the reason a doctor is writing this article.
- Dr David Shearman, AM FRACP, is a founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia and an emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University.