“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
Our society uses its land for profit, and not subsistence. This is a well-established yet vastly unquestioned paradigm of our culture, which is central to any sustainability discussion. Understanding land for its lucrative potential and not as sustenance has an array of consequences. Large scale, fuel-based agriculture implies food-miles, land degradation, and a disempowering ignorance of food production at a local level.
The good news is that if we are ready and willing to accept evidence and change, here in Australia there is a lot that we can do to take the pressure off the land. Growing food in our suburbs amounts to a reduction of our ecological footprint and addresses food security. By doing this we are working towards making our residential suburban areas, safer, resilient, and self-reliant. 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. There are examples in other countries, where growing food locally is tradition, or a newly adopted trend.
However choosing to grow food organically at home, or simply supporting this movement, involves radical changes, and these 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. 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? I have asked myself many times. Why such strong opposition to making space for the more environmentally responsible species? And why are residential areas here in the Blue Mountains more flammable and sterile than ever before. Could it be a case of non-acceptance of the science, or that the science and evidence regarding bushfires and environmental issues is not entirely accepted?
Science regarding environmental issues such as land degradation and GHG emissions, exposes the impact of our dependence on fuel-based agriculture as one of its main culprits. And bushfire science is clear on what needs to happen to prevent more home loss due to bush fire.
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 Climate Change was not to blame, that the main difference from the past is 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…”
I have presented these findings and more in my series of articles on fire . Seeing the reaction from some neighbours to my removing of native and pine trees I presumed there could be a lack of awareness of such issues. That it was about communicating the information and science. However there is no knowledge deficit.
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. 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.
It may well be that it is not that people don’t know that fire promoting trees endanger our homes. The October 2014 bushfires saw nearly 200 homes destroyed here in Springwood due to high fuel levels in residential areas and trees close to power-lines. Yet it appears that there are greater fears in the community than that of bushfire destruction.
The psychosocial obstacles are an impediment not just for those unwilling to take decisive action regarding trees, but for the community as a whole. As 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.
I have learned that no amount of science, evidence, or information will help people move towards a safer, self-reliant life in suburban areas. As long as fears such as 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.