July 23, 2003

Ecological gaps

This post (and its antecedents) by John Quiggin, when juxtaposed to my visit to the Murray Mouth last weekend and watching Roman Polanski's Chinatown about the LA Basin, got me thinking.

Here is what I thought.

The current concerns to increase the environmental flows in the River Murray and the closure of its mouth due to lack of river flow, means that we stand at the end of an era of development without ecological limits.

That was what I thought when I stood at the mouth where sea, sky, water and land touch.

The lack of concern for, nay indifference to, the ecology of the Murray-Darling Basin in the 1940s Snowy Mountain Hydro-Electric Scheme has rebounded on us. Though water now water fuels the economy we now discover that there is not enough water, the irrigators need to have their entitlements reduced, and Adelaide has to go on water restrictions.

I then realized that we have not really come to grips with the land that we live in. Adelaide has a Mediterranean environment that is shaped by a dialectic of water and drought. In a fundamental sense the white pioneers inherited language and cultural inheritance failed the newcomers to this continent. Since English terminology is specific to a humid climate not a Mediterranean environment, its conception of river as water flowing inside two banks fails to grasp a river that consists of floodplains and wetlands.

In applying the English category to the River Murray the floodplains and wetlands were remaindered out and disappeared from sight. What the English category failed to grasp was the strangeness of this land. So the land (Murray-Darling Basin) had to be shaped to fit the concept. Hence the Snowy Mountain Hydro-Electric Scheme: it was a technological fix to turn a brown land green, droughtproof the Basin and keep the river flowing all year round for the irrigators.

A nature-defying mode of habitation never turned out that way it was all planned. An European-style agriculture based on water diverted from a working river has turned out to an ecological failure.

This failure of inherited categories to cut reality at the joints 200 year years ago points to a larger claim: that the Murray-Darling Basin remains opaque as a historico-natural phenomenon to Anglo-American paradigms of urbanism. Our cities, such as Adelaide, sit at odds to the land in an ecological sense. They are not a part of the ecology of the place.

So talking about increasing the price for water, converting water entitlements to property rights, cutting back allocations strikes me as tinkering. I fear that the technological fix of market levers embody more Anglo categories that will be imposed on an alien landscape. The category "Resource" is the foundation upon which the whole free market rests (eg., the efficient allocation of scarce resource), but it does not capture the ecology of the riverine environment. What is not captured by resource is going to remaindered.

The future is one of a stalemate over the limited water supply and ever-increasing demand between three main groups-- agricultural, urban and environmental. Water is for fighting over and cities, farmers and environmentalists will battle over who will control the Basin's water. South Australia's growth has been, and still is, closely tied to water development. The traditional way of closing the gap between supply and demand has been to increase supplies -- either by building new facilities such as dams or by tapping underground aquifers is not an option in South Australia. Recycling storm and sewerage water is but little is being done.

What needs to change fundamentally is the way we have designed our cities and agricultural systems. Instead we will go for the cheap and quick repair job--buying water on the open market to prop up environmental flows so the working river has a modicum of health.

If you want to push this thought a bit further then it puts into question the deployment of the modernist conception of the Baconian Enlightenment project by the liberal state to make Australia modern. This use of modernist science (reductionist and elimination of old ideas by new ones) involved an ahistorical, instrumental reason to improve the human condition coupled to an appeal to a tacit notion of progress. It has been thrown into question because its categories got things messed up-----to put it nicely, they failed to explain how the nature/society dialectic in the Murray-Darling Basin worked; failed by a long shot.

Want more? Well the analytic philosophers not only misunderstood the philosophical tradition; they also failed to understand how science worked because they were unaware of the actual history of science and the existence of technoscience. They were blinded by a pure science attaining Absolute Truth that transcended mundane human history.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at July 23, 2003 05:25 PM | TrackBack
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