April 23, 2003

Poisoning Ourselves

A talk to the Southern Fleurieu Marine Conservation Society (17 April 2003)

In this talk I want to address the need to shift the policy compass to sustainability in the Murray-Darling Basin by arguing in terms of the closure of the Murray Mouth. That is how the River Murray impacts on us in this part of the river country known as the Murray-Darling Basin.

The closure of the Murray Mouth indicates that something has gone badly wrong with the River over and above the impact of the drought. So we ask: what has gone wrong in the Murray Darling Basin? How did the river stop flowing? What happened? How can we put things right?

We sense that a tragedy has happened and we guess that it will be difficult to put things right. The tragedy? We are poisoning ourselves. To put it another way we are fouling our own nest.

It is difficult to accept that we are poisoning ourselves. Why would we do anything so silly? Yet poisoning ourselves, I will argue is a good diagnosis, for why our way of life is sick.

The way I am approaching this is in terms of a therapeutic concern to remove those poisonous beliefs and values that make our way of life sick. The task is just like the medical doctor, namely, to identify what makes us sick, offer a diagnosis and suggest a remedy that will cure the sickness.

The medical conception of philosophy is not an uncommon way of looking at things. Thus the drought indicates that the land is suffering, something bad has happened; there is a diagnosis about farmers living with the risk of drought and a remedy is found to prevent further damage and suffering in the form of better management of risk.

So what we are doing with this philosophical therapy is looking at our cultural beliefs, including our way of looking at nature, is to see how they contribute to our bad practices in the Basin. It is the beliefs and practices of developmentalism that have contributed to the ill-health of the Basin’s ecology. A philosophical therapy implies that we can change this way of governing ourselves.

1. A Fable

One way that we can try to make sense of what has happened to us is to frame it in a story or narrative. Look, we say, this is how we got to where we are now. This narrative gives us a historical knowing.

Joe and Jane are family farmers in a country where public policy is rule by the debt truck that magically appears during elections. They are worried because ABC Radio has just mentioned that the river’s mouth down south has closed.

Joe remarks, “The drought must be bad upstream. We should use the money from the rice to pay off the debt on the place.”
Jane nods. “It’s the sensible thing to do”, she says.
A few months latter after inspecting some of the property, Jane says to Joe, “Salinity is getting worse. Nearly 50% of the land is now affected. Maybe we should plant trees.”
“Let’s get some advice”, Joe says. Aren’t the salinity scientists preparing a report for the catchment management board?”
“Oh, those environmental scientists were all downsized a few months back, due to budget cutbacks”, Jane said.
A few days latter Joe said, “I’ve spoken to the bank. They said it was a good time to pay off the debt with the world economy in recession”.
A few weeks later Janes tells Joe that the wetlands have dried upon and the trees are showing signs of stress.
“I thought there was an allocation of water for the wetlands in the catchment board’s water allocation plan”, said Joe.
“Oh that duck water was sold off by the Water Authority”, said Jane. “They borrowed it and never paid it back. We need some good rains.”
“Oh well”, says Joe, “the country will bounce back once the rains come. It always does. We have to get that debt paid off.”
A month or so later Jane tells Joe that the river has dried up. “It’s no longer flowing”, she says. “I reckon it’s all the cotton development upstream. The dams the cotton and rice farmers have built upstream have taken all the run off from the rains.

A few months go by. Things become pretty grim on the farm with no water.

A few months later Joe says, “Honey, we are all right. I sold our water licences to the upstream cotton growers and paid off the net debt on the farm. The market value was $80 million, the debt was $20 million and we are $60 million better off. We are debt free. Isn’t freedom such a wonderful feeling?
Jane is angry. “What sort of logic is that? The country is ruined and you sell the water licence for the sole reason to pay off the net debt? How we are supposed to be better off? What use is the land without a water licence? You are only concerned about the debt on the farm and not the country. Yet is the ill health of the catchment that has caused the farm to fail.
Joe looks stunned. He was looking to be affirmed as a marketplace hero by his beloved.
He says, “But we can use the money to buy property investment units on the Gold Coast and live off the rental stream. Maybe we could even become property developers”
Jane looks at him and says, “Shouldn’t we be thinking about the catchment? Do we not belong to the land? Are we not part of the local community? We should be caring for the land”.
She pauses for a moment, then she says, “Do not these things count too? Why is making money is everything?”

So what is the point of the fable, apart from Joe being concerned about money and being shaped by the ethos of the market, and Jane’s concern about the environment that goes beyond a duty of care to a catchment care? The fable suggests that we gain our understanding of the big changes that shape our individual lives when they have already happened. Historical knowing is a retrospective knowing, a looking back on what’s already happened, say what has happened since the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme was built after WW2. We then interpret what has happened to the river country in the Murray-Darling Basin to make sense of this history.

2. How did we get here?

The historical narrative suggested, or implied by, by the fable indicates a situation where the European agricultural footprint has been too heavy on the landscape. Hence we devastated salinised landscapes, unhealthy rivers, declining biodiversity etc. Admittedly, this is big picture stuff, but we apply it to the local area of the river country where we belong. We can ask: how did the Ramsar-listed Coorong wetlands get to be in such a bad way? The question arises from the current dredging of the Murray Mouth inlet to let the sea flow into the Coorong’s lagoons.

The following practices have helped to explain why the Coorong is in such a bad way:

●the Upper South East Drainage System. This deals with the rising saline groundwater in farmland caused by bad farming practices, eg., clearing too much of the landscape, by taking it off farm;
●too great an extraction of the groundwater aquifer, eg., in the Angas/Bremer Region, by the viticulture industry;
● the lack of flow of our local rivers in the Eastern Mt. Lofty Ranges due to farm dams storing the run off in the upper catchment and direct pumping;
●treating our wetlands as cheap agricultural drainage systems (eg., the Southern lagoon of the Coorong); or treating the river as water storage basins for irrigators, eg., Lake Alexandrina;
·too much water has been taken out of the River Murray upstream by irrigators.

This narrative gives us a form of historical knowledge, which enables us to look back on our history, reflect on it, and become aware of it. It gives another way of reading the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electricity Scheme to the standard one of the triumph over nature, masculine toughness shaping nature, science and technology as instruments producing a better world. This historical knowledge gives us an environmental history that questions the whole enlightenment ethos of progress and gives us an insight into the ecological wreckage caused by the storm we call progress.

This environmental knowing suggests that current agricultural productions systems are ecologically unsustainable. It is not simply that there is not enough water in the river as suggested by the fable. There is not water in the river due to the way we produce food in the Basin. It implies that we need to do more than tinkering around the edges by increasing efficiency in the use of water---maybe our European-style agriculture is not suitable for the landscape.

3. What is the poison causing the damage to our way of life?

The medical conception of philosophy leads us to interpret the above as symptoms that signify the ill-health or sickness of our way of life. Something is wrong with our current mode of life. So what is sick about our way of life?

The basic diagnosis suggested by a therapeutic philosophy is that the sickness has been caused by an ongoing commitment to development, a commitment to economic growth through the wine and horticulture industry. This is development in the form of water for growth. It is part of the big dream is associated with the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electricity Scheme was to divert water from the Snowy westward to make the deserts bloom. And the economic growth of the wine and horticulture industry indicates that the dream is a reality.

So why is our way of sick? It is a sick way of life because we are not treating our rivers as rivers, or our wetlands as wetlands. Thus we cannot raise and lower Lake Alexandrina because it conflicts with the requirements of the wine industry. Our rivers are drained of environmental flows because of the need for water by irrigators.

True, many people dispute this kind of diagnosis. They say that it is just bad management by the state governments in the past. The states should have been more sensible in allocating water licences. Too many licences were issued. What is needed now is better management through sustainable reform. This is best done through the market and it x can be achieved through proper property rights, water trading etc.

This is right. But it does not go far enough. We need to ask what drives the bad management practices? Why do they continue given our knowledge about the River Murray’s ill-health?

The answer is that the state’s concern for regional development and wealth creation caused them to use water to drive economic growth and ensure flourishing regional communities. It is the policy goal of wealth creation that has lead to the over-allocation of water in the Murray-Darling Basin and our rivers becoming salty.

Developmentalism means increasing the economic pie so that everyone is better off in terms of their standard of living. It has lead to
● no water being allocated for the environment
●when water is allocated it is borrowed for development
●when open irrigation channels are piped to lessen leakage and evaporation the water saved is used for further development rather than returned to the river.

We need to wake up from this dream because developmentalism now threatens the very foundations of the human life that has been built in the Murray-Darling Basin as well as the future of Adelaide.

This will not be easy because we are ensnared in the dream of development or progress. What this means is that we enframe the world of nature through the ethos of developmentalism. We see resources not rivers. We see agricultural land not fragile ecosystems. We see ourselves as developers and money makers not as custodians or caretakers. So we work inside the enframing. Questioning this enframing, and treating it as a poison, gives us the beginnings of an environmental history that focuses on our relation to nature.

4. What can we do?

Few people dispute the diagnosis that our current mode of life is unsustainable. Everyone realizes that we cannot continue with business as usual, and that something has to be done to repair the damage, even if they find developmentalism as a poison hard to accept. Repairing the damage is where we begin to get into disputes and enter into the realm of politics. Many different remedies are on offer to deal with the poison.

Take the Rann Government. It addresses the closure of the Murray Mouth by saying said that dredging the mouth to keep it open is only a bandaid. The real cause is not enough water coming down the river. We need more water by way of environmental flows for the River Murray—at least 1600 gigalitres. This has to come from the Eastern states. That is the political message it sends back to the eastern states. And it keeps on sending that message.

It’s not a good remedy. It implies that SA needs to do nothing to improve the health of the River Murray. The problem is that SA can act within it is own borders. What the eastern states see is that SA needs to act to ensure that the water saved is returned to the river, and is not used for further development, as is happening with Clare.

●It can do something to ensure healthy local rivers that flow into the River Murray and Lake Alexandrina; it can cut Adelaide’s dependence on River Murray water by moving it towards a sustainable city; the same can be done for Whyalla through solar–powered desalination;
●it can act to ensure that the Upper South farmers become responsible for their salinised landscapes by changing their practices;
●it can control development in the Barossa the Clare Valley and Angas Bremer areas and regulate and provide incentives to facilitate the wineries greening their production processes to ensure a more efficient use of water;
●it can prescribe water resources in the Eastern Mt Lofty Ranges to control unregulated development.

But SA doesn’t do these things, even though it needs to recover around 160 gigalitres of water from within its own boundaries as its share of clawing back for environmental flows under the Living Murray Project.

5. What is the remedy?

Why is there a lack of government intervention? Why do we not change the way we are governing ourselves? We know that we are fouling our own nest. So why is there a lack of action by SA to do something substantial to claw back water for environmental flows for the River Murray?

Well this way of looking at things is rejected by policy makers. The answer the the senior bureaucrats and policy advisors – the policy elite - give is that they reckon they have found the one true medicine to cure us from the poisons. Economics, they say, is the only way of analysing the issues and devising the remedies. The poison they identify is big government intervention: state government’s have over-allocated the f ground and surface water by dishing out water licences to fuel economic growth. The diagnosis is that there has been too much government involvement. The remedy is a healthy dose of market medicine. If we set up a water market with property rights, allowed interstate trading then this will increase the efficiency in the use of water and improve sustainability. Governments should row not steer. The market will steer through its logic of encouraging the efficient use of water resources.

This diagnosis is too simple. The market will increase efficiency in water usage and prosperity to some communities, but it will not restore damaged landscapes or repair our badly stressed rivers by itself. Government intervention is required to ensure that water reform actually results in increased environmental flows for the River Murray. More medicine is required. But the politicians are not listening; or if they are, then they are more engaged in media stunts and appearing to look good rather than doing anything substantive.

The gap between rhetoric and reality is so great that we citizens begin to suspect that the politicains have something to hide.

6. Another story?

What we have realized is that we are not getting is government action to create a new sustainable mode of living. Politics, many say, is actually putting the break on the shift to sustainability. To make sense of this blockage we need another story to get our bearings on our political history.

During the 1990s a gap opened up between the neo-liberal market policies favoured by the policy elite and ordinary people who were fed up from two decades of market reform. During the 1990s people were in a bitter mood about losing their communities and finding their way of life eroding. They were frustrated and felt powerless because they weren’t being listened to. Hence, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party was used by the regional populists in the 1990s to give Canberra a good kick, to wake it up from its neo-liberal dream, and to ensure that the politicians heard what the people saying about how they were suffering from economic reform.

What this indicates is that politics is where the policies and people’s concerns collide and politicians have been forced to bridge the gap between the two. The solution has been to continue with economic reform as a way to engage with global, economy and a caring eye to those suffering through the transition. This caring is articulated by the social liberalism (Paul Keating) and the social conservatism (John Howard); and it aims to minimise the impact of market outcomes, cushion the hardest hit and least able to cope, and provide alternatives.

On this story it is held that basically the policy elite are right and a battered public just didn’t understand that the economic reforms were for their own good. On this story we get a policy drift, a policy vacuum, arising from the clash between economic reform and the social consequences. Hence all the talk about lack of policy agenda a searching around for a new policies and a new vision. We then hear the cries for good leadership.

We have a similar policy paralysis around water reform to ensure more sustainable practices and higher environmental standards for landscape conservation. The socio-economic consequences of the reforms are big and the politicians are running for cover.

But what the ecological crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin indicates that we are involved in a debate about value; s about what sort of society we want Australia to be. Those who live downstream near the Murray Mouth are clear. It has to be a sustainable Australia. Only a sustainable Australia will ensure that the Murray’s Mouth remains open. This reform needs to be driven by local action based on local knowledge.


Lindy Edwards, How to Argue with an Economist, (Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2002).

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at April 23, 2003 03:53 PM | TrackBack


Posted by: stephanie on June 12, 2003 07:56 AM
Post a comment