“Study how a society uses its land, and you can come to pretty reliable conclusions as to what its future will be.” E. F. Schumacher
We must face the fact:: as long as we continue to see, and use, land as profit and remain dependent on food that is grown, against all odds in this country, on large scale farming enterprises, the climate change problem will not be addressed. There are three main reasons why climate change is not being dealt with at a grass roots level in Australia. The most important one is that we need to change our mentality, the way we see land needs to change. For this we need to remove our psychosocial obstacles, as I outline below. And as the science communication problem reveals: there is no knowledge deficit about the detrimental effects of conventional agriculture on the land and as a climate change contributor, but we seem to fail to make the connection between ourselves and the land. In Australia, growing food in our suburbs would mean a positive approach to the climate change problem, where, rather than wait for authorities to change and act, we act ourselves by taking some responsibility.
The way we see land
Our society uses land for profit, not sustenance. This is a well established paradigm of our culture. We see land as business, in fact 427.million ha of land, (that is over half of Australia’s total land mass), has been altered and deforested extensively to produce food , but this food is primarily a commodity. Farmers often assert in times of drought, that it is farming: “to feed the nation”. But the truth is Australian farmers export 77% of what they grow and produce. Yet despite the devastating effects of deforestation and agriculture, particularily livestock farming we fail to accept that radical change is necessary as the severity of the problem cannot be solved with the same mentality that it was created.
Understanding land for its lucrative potential and not as sustenance has an array of detrimental consequences. Having separated ourselves from the land as people who can nourish it —and be nourished from it— we now depend on supermarket food, the product of exploitative agriculture. This dependency implies food-miles, land degradation, and green house gas emissions on the one hand; and a disempowering ignorance of food production at a local level.
And yet our food supply system is a fragile one, according to the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources: “there are factors on both the demand and supply side of the chain that are decreasing future resilience”. The study also noted ˝a number of potential threats to the supply of food and groceries in Australia in the event of a severe emergency.” Our food production is both, a cause of climate change, as much as it is vulnerable to it.
According to a few analysts, (David Holmgren, political psychologist Conor Seyle, director of research at One Earth Future Foundation, Dr Mathew King, and Dan Kahan, science communication expert from Yale University), there are a number of psychosocial obstacles that act as an impediment to seeing the climate change problem as an opportunity to improve our lives as humans.
Permaculture originator David Holmgren and his partner Su Dennett have dedicated their life to the practice and communication of a vision that sees climate change as opportunity. In his recent book Retrosuburbia, he outlines the solution to the climate change problem, he identifies the psychosocial obstacles in our society and suggests we:
“Harness the tradition of Aussie DIY to reclaim common sense self reliance while ignoring the overregulation, risk management myopic and dependence on centralised authority that afflicts affluent Australia. In the process, help create a broader, more holistic culture of DIO (doing it ourselves) which rebuilds the non-monetary economies of the household and community.”
What David Holmgren proposes is taking responsibility, a grass roots movement that is empowering and totally possible. For this to happen we need to accept the damage and see that we have the power to transform our suburban landscape collectively. According to Adelaide University’s Professor of Climate Change, Barry Brook, large scale animal farming alone is responsible for half of Australia’s short-term global warming gases — that’s more than the coal industry. That is, we know the price we are paying for such activity but fail to make the connection between ourselves and the land, to take action. As Director of one Earth Future Conor Seyle says that “Humans are very bad at understanding statistical trends and long-term changes.”
But the solution to the climate change problem is often found in examples that are around us, for example we remain oblivious to the fact that there are in the world, countless models of small farms, (some about the size of a large suburban block) that are both kinder to the environment than large scale farming, and productive, yet here we seem to be convinced that our food needs to come not from our own gardens and close by, but from the large farms far away. However, if we are ready and willing to accept evidence and change, there is a lot that we can do to take the pressure off the land. Particularly in countries with a large percentage of free standing homes, such as Australia, and America.
By supporting smaller local food farmers, and growing food at home, we can make a great difference. And a small piece of land can produce large quantities of food, in fact when it comes to farms, greater size does not entail higher efficiency: the smaller the farm, the higher their production.
If we could think of our gardens as small farms and grow food in them, our impact on the land would be decreased. Take potatoes for example, one of the easiest vegetables to grow at home, also the biggest vegetable commodity grown in Australia by volume, with over 1.3 million tonnes of potatoes grown for human consumption and processing in 2016-17. It is not hard to imagine the amount of resources invested to grow these potatoes commercially, using conventional agribusiness principles. And such consumption is in turn an indication of the impact on the environment: there is deforestation, the use of fuel in transport, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and such activities translate into soil degradation and emissions. And yet potatoes are one of the least demanding vegetables to grow at home with hardly any care or resources invested. I often hear that the reason people don’t take positive action towards climate change is that the scale of the problem is too big. But it is precisely our small contributions from our life style that have made it big. Every purchase at a supermarket, no matter how small adds up.
According to Dr Mathew King, psychologists have identified cognitive biases that are particularly important in explaining why we lack the will to act on climate change. In his article he outlines a few worth considering:
- Hyperbolic discounting. This is our perception that the present is more important than the future. Throughout most of our evolution it was more advantageous to focus on what might kill us or eat us now, not later. This bias now impedes our ability to take action to address more distant-feeling, slower and complex challenges.
- Our lack of concern for future generations. Evolutionary theory suggests that we care most about just a few generations of family members: our great-grandparents to great-grandchildren. While we may understand what needs to be done to address climate change, it’s hard for us to see how the sacrifices required for generations existing beyond this short time span are worth it.
- The bystander effect. We tend to believe that someone else will deal with a crisis. This developed for good reason: if a threatening wild animal is lurking at the edge of our hunter-gatherer group, it’s a waste of effort for every single member to spring into action — not to mention could needlessly put more people into danger. In smaller groups, it was usually pretty clearly delineated who would step up for which threats, so this worked. Today, however, this leads us to assume (often wrongly) that our leaders must be doing something about the crisis of climate change. And the larger the group, the stronger this bias becomes.
- The sunk-cost fallacy. We are biased towards staying the course even in the face of negative outcomes. The more we’ve invested time, energy or resources into that course, the more likely we are to stick with it – even if it no longer seems optimal. This helps explain, for example, our continued reliance on fossil fuels as a primary source of energy in the face of decades of evidence that we both can and should transition to clean energy and a carbon neutral future.
In my own experience growing food in my suburban block in the Blue Mountains I encountered both approval, and disapproval. With many neighbours joining in to grow food on my nature strip at the front of my house, and on the other hand neighbours who saw the keeping of a couple of very dominating pine trees in the area, as a preference to the establishment of a food garden. I believe this is because land is not seen as sustenance, this is a regrettable. Considering that most Australians, (70% according to the ABS), live in free-standing homes with access to land, we can think of ourselves as lucky. We have the space, the land, and the climate. Using permaculture principles, or learning from other countries, even in Europe still today (where growing food locally is tradition), we can make a significant difference in terms of emissions, waste and consumption of fuel.
However choosing to grow food organically at home, involves radical changes, (here I mean growing enough food to make a difference, -not just a small backyard garden bed). Changes that are not the norm in your suburb, will not be welcome by all. Growing food here in the Blue Mountains, involves removing strong competitors such as native trees and conifers to allow space for food growing species. But choosing to support the fire prevention and food growing movement by supporting the removal of native and pine trees here requires courage. If you plan to grow food at home and remove trees that are a hindrance to your endeavour, I can assure you there will be neighbours who will adamantly disapprove of any large tree removal even if the species is classified as an environmental weed, such as radiata pines for example.
Why is this? Why such strong opposition to making space for the more environmentally responsible species? Is it not now obvious and known to everyone that conventional agriculture is a significant contributor of green house gas emissions? Changing the suburbs into a more environmentally responsible landscape should be a welcome move. And yet residential areas here in the Blue Mountains are now more sterile and flammable, (essentially due to vegetation choice), than ever before. Could it be a case of non-acceptance of the science and evidence regarding bushfires and green house gas emissions?
Science communication problem.
Taking care of our country means reducing our ecological footprint, and applying responsible environmental actions in our daily living,. This is the reason why most Australians prefer to deny the importance of removing fire propagating trees from their gardens, or grow their own food —actions which account to significant reduction in Green House Gas Emissions. Instead, people follow the government guidelines , (such as recycling for example) to address climate change. And it is not enough to address climate change. Taking a more significant action entails change, it also requires collective action. So it is not that we don’t know what to do, or what the problem is. We are choosing not to accept what is needed to change, and part of the reason is that sadly anyone in our neighbours is doing it.
There is a discipline called “communication science” that studies the so called “science communication problem”. Information designer Angela Morelli and Prof Dan Kahan centre their work around science communication and have very sound findings that show that providing more scientific evidence and more information does not translate into responsible action. A great example of this is the growing movement of people who believe the earth is flat, or “flat-earthers” in America.
Dan Kahan maintains that the knowledge deficit hypothesis is not true, and that the source of the problem is what he calls motivated reasoning. It is how we accept what the information received means to us: “As humans we will always be assessing the information unconsciously, assessing how it is going to affect our life and the links to the social groups we belong to. If the information is coming along the meaning channel and threatens us, we will freeze or run away.” What Dan Kahan proposes is that the degree of information acceptance is relative to the meaning the information has to us as individuals.
Leading bush fire expert, Joan Webster OAM and bushfire former Senior Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO Phil Cheney, tell us that if we live close to dense forest, we should keep the native trees and conifers 50 metres away from buildings. In reference to the October 2014 fires, Phill Cheney, on ABC radio said that “people are not taking the same degree of precautions as they used to take…” In the past, “people would not build their houses amongst our native trees, and there was an influx of European and African species, which are less flammable and there were a lot less trees in towns, and people would have a green lawn and a garden bed of roses and agapanthus…” Fire promoting tree removal has been recommended by bushfire science experts and government fire authorities, it is also just common sense. And I have presented these findings and more in my series of articles on fire . However, there is no knowledge deficit.
It may well be that it is not that people don’t know that fire promoting trees endanger our homes, or that food producing species are more appropriate and address climate change. The October 2014 bushfires saw nearly 200 homes destroyed here in the Blue Mountains. The weather was not particularly hot, but fuel levels were high and trees too close to power-lines. It was important evidence. But nothing changed. Houses were rebuilt and the same native fire prone species planted around them.
Perhaps the idea of changing backyard landscape culture, (from lawns and native species to fire deterrent edible species) evokes other socio-phycological associations which block responsible climate change action. As the deforestation and farming for profit continues, we hold on to native species as the preferred option in our backyards. But tree roots and canopies don’t see fences, and it is largely through collective action, that we can face the future with higher chances of remaining safe from bush fire destruction and less dependent on authorities and food mile laden foods. France, and Spain, to name a couple, are countries where backyards are often beautiful food havens, why not have the same?
No amount of science, evidence, or information will help people move towards a safer, self-reliant life in suburban areas. As long as fears relating to how we want to appear in society and how we are perceived within our group, stand higher than what we know as true and can free us, we will continue to slide down the self defeating path of destructive land use, and dependence on unhealthy supermarket food.
A more caring, responsible move forward is to think of land as sustenance not profit, develop a relationship with the land that is nourishing. And grow food in our neighbourhoods, or at least support those who do, with what ever changes regarding trees are needed.
Paula Ajuria 2014, (updated 2018).