Doctor, doctor, gimme the news


All over this planet, millions of species representing the end point of 4 billion years of evolution, living in ecosystems representing the end point of millions of years of ecological interaction, are being made extinct at a rate probably unprecedented in the history of Earth, and towards an end point seen only a few times in that history.

An incredible 100,000 or so species are estimated to be going extinct each year towards a total loss in just a few decades of at least half those existing just 100 years ago (when the extinction rate first gathered pace). My feeling is that estimates like “a half” represent scientists being cautious. That really the planet is faced with the extinction of 90% or more, and the last time that happened was a quarter of a billion years ago. The last time anything like the extent of the events of these two centuries happened was 65 million years ago as a large meteor exploded against the planet. The last significant set of extinctions was around 25,000 years ago as the climatic events of the end of the ice ages drove many large species, especially mammals, to extinction.
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We need to talk about Kevin


The other day I saw the start of one of the Kevin McCloud lifestyle programs “Grand Designs” (a British series which follows people building unusual/interesting houses). I was struck by his opening scene. The camera ran a close-up on his face as he walked along. He said “What do you do in Britain if you want to build a house in the wilderness?” As he spoke the camera panned back to show that he was walking across a paddock, one of hundreds of acres of such paddocks as far as you could see, of pasture for sheep (which were, lambs at foot, dotted across the grass)! It would have been impossible to find a scene less “wildernessy”.

So pause for a moment, as I did, to absorb this incongruity. He isn’t a stupid man, Mr McCloud, so what on earth did he mean? Well, what he meant was that “wilderness” is anything that isn’t in a city. It’s like the ancient Greek sense of “Barbarians” meaning anyone who wasn’t Greek living in a Greek City State (a concept shared with most other cultures, everywhere from England, to China, to Aboriginal Australia, but I digress.

Let’s look at another, related, misused word, “pristine”. Once it meant what “wilderness” once meant – an environment unmodified by humans. Then it was turned on its head, by advertising agencies who decided it had a nice sound, to use, essentially, for a landscape with grass. As in a pristine golf course, a pristine housing development, a pristine farm (see the overlap with McCloud). But then it developed to pristine beaches (with added sand, breakwaters, carefully manicured by sand graders), pristine tropical islands (totally turned into tourist resorts) pristine snow resorts (trees and boulders removed from runs, ski lodges added, artificial snow created by machines), and so on. In this most recent sense it means something like “picturesque” “chocolate boxy” “place that photographs well” or, most simply “special offer, wouldn’t you love to have a holiday here?” Or, in a general sense, places that aren’t the city. Which brings us back neatly to Mr McCloud and his sheep paddock.

In the old days in Britain “wilderness” meant basically “places where we haven’t cut the trees down yet”. They were, consequently, dangerous, and might hide wolves, bears, brigands, ghosts, evil spirits and so on. A farm definitely wasn’t wilderness, but what lay beyond its fence line was.

The Romantics adopted this kind of definition, but turned it into a positive (following the original lead, in a different sense, of Rousseau). Wilderness was where we could get back in touch with nature, get away from the artificiality, indeed evils, of the city, where we were never meant to be, and get back to our roots. Now, instead of being feared, wild places of mountain or swamp or forest were celebrated in art and literature. People went hiking in them, climbed mountains, communed where the wild things were.

And then began creating “wilderness” on their estates – artificial waterfalls, clumps of trees, piles of rocks, fake ruins of temples, and so on. You could visit “wilderness” without the bother of travelling. And paintings, by Constable for example, treated as a single landscape the trees and rivers as well as the farm cottages or watermills or labourers in a field. At the same time the population was on the move as those same labourers tossed it in for more lucrative and perhaps easier work in factories and moved their families into town. The countryside was where they had escaped from, the primitive life, and they had no interest in it. If you needed a holiday from town then you travelled to a seaside resort which was a different kind of town, with a “pristine” beach, but with all the comforts of home. All views, and behaviour, which were exported to Australia with the first convicts and settlers.

So we come, gradually, to McCloud’s definition. Both symbolically, and actually, civilised life is in the city, and all that lies beyond is untamed, and rather threatening and uncomfortable, wilderness. Which people never really see, never want to see. Holidays still involve travel to artificial resorts (either in Australia, say the Gold Coast, or more often these days, in places like Thailand or Bali), the more “pristine” the better. They don’t involve contact with actual wilderness.

Does it matter? Of course it does. If wilderness is an undifferentiated “other” world out there beyond the outer suburbs, and a golf course or resort are “pristine”, then efforts at conservation will make no sense to you. Conversely nonsense like “farmers are the only true conservationists” or “miners restore the environment after mining” or “logging is good for forests” or “you got to choose between frogs and people” will seem to make perfect sense.

If you have no idea that what are trendily called “ecosystem services” these days – clean air, water, pest control, soil conservation – can only be provided by intact functioning ecosystems (wilderness), then you will see no problem in losing them. When populist politicians from Left or Right, or unionists, or big business, call for the felling of forests, the trawling of oceans, the complete use of river water for irrigation, the construction of huge open cut mines, the opening up of the North, shooting or grazing in forests, removal of marine reserves, the culling of bats or crocodiles, the public, in blissful ignorance, will applaud and vote accordingly.

Until the public understands that farmland is an environment little less degraded than cities and suburbs, and that actual functioning wilderness is consequently only in tiny, rapidly disappearing, areas, which are being woodchipped, mined, cleared, developed as I write these words, then there is no hope of trying to develop a public, and therefore political, conservation ethos.

Perhaps I could start with Kevin McCloud. Get him to make a program.

The Colour Purple


Media Matters has analysed media coverage in the US media of climate change in recent years and found, in spite of record temperatures and droughts etc, that coverage was actually declining. Furthermore, even when climate change was mentioned, the vast majority of those interviewed were Republican climate change deniers, with actual climate scientists rarely if ever interviewed. I don’t know if a similar study has been done recently in Australia, although there are studies of the abysmal News Ltd newspapers coverage, but it is absolutely clear that similar, if not worse, statistics would apply. I’m looking here a one particular Australian case which probably has relevance everywhere.

The record high temperatures in Australia this week, followed by devastating bushfires, were an obvious “teachable moment” for the media to join the dots for the public. This is what climate scientists have been predicting, this is what happened, this is what the future holds. Instead there was again a studious silence. It was as if there was no such thing as climate change, as if (like the America drought last year) these things were happening by chance in some world in which nothing else had changed.

Here is a recent example from Australia’s national broadcaster the ABC. Some background. The “7.30 Report” is a relatively serious current affair program, immediately following the main evening news bulletin, and often expanding on the main stories from the news. On the 8 January, as temperatures soared and fires raged, a great deal of the News Bulletin was devoted to those events, and then the 7.30 Report devoted the whole program to them.

None of the news items mentioned climate change, nor did the 7.30 Report in its first half, to my increasing frustration and yelling at the tv set. Then came an interview with “Alasdair Hainsworth from the Bureau of Meteorology”. The presenter, Ben Knight, introduced the segment by noting temperature records, and then noting that the Bureau had been forced to add more colours, black and purple, to its temperature maps to cope with the new high records. Extraordinary, right, and the obvious time to have a discussion about climate change, and indeed Mr Knight began the interview with the question “why are we in this situation where Australia is breaking these temperature records?”

Yes, I thought, here comes a decent climate change discussion at last. But I was wrong. Whether by design, or because that was the way the meteorologist interpreted the question, we immediately moved into a routine that has become very familiar. The ABC (and other networks) when it asks about the cause of events, means only the proximate cause, not the ultimate one. By this means, turning climate discussions into discussions about weather, every time, it avoids every opportunity to talk climate change. And so it was yet again, Mr Hainsworh talking about the trapping of heat on the continent, lack of cloud and moisture, delay in monsoon season and so on. Now, fair enough, this seems to be Mr Hainsworth’s area of expertise (a manager, Assistant Director Services, a meteorologist involved in IT systems and so on, his team recently won an award for “Our Next Generation Forecast and Warning System was highly commended at the Comcover Awards for Excellence in Risk Management in March 2012. These awards recognise exceptional and inspiring leadership in the management of risks faced by Commonwealth Government agencies. The judging panel recognised that the system improved our ability to manage and inform the community about severe weather events, including severe thunderstorms and flash flooding. These events present a significant risk to the safety of the Australian community”). But that being the case, why was he asked to appear? Well, apparently because he is responsible for the area that had to put new colours on the map. OK, now we have an another opportunity to talk climate change.

And here we go, the conversation proceeding as follows:

“BEN KNIGHT: It’s always a difficult question but how much of an aberration is this or does this actually fit into this pattern we’ve seen over the past decades where it’s been progressively getting hotter and hotter?
ALASDAIR HAINSWORTH: Certainly I can comment that this has broken the record as the hottest period. We’ve had six days in a row where the national average maximum temperature has been in excess of 39 degrees. The previous record was four days and we’ve also seen the hottest average day in Australia which was Monday and perhaps it could have been broken again today, although it’s somewhat cooler in Tasmania today. So, that may not be the case. Certainly it’s almost unprecedented as far as records are concerned.
BEN KNIGHT: And you now have this really quite interesting situation where Australian temperature maps have actually had to change because previously they only went up to 50 degrees, we’re now seeing that you’ve got an extra couple of gradings in purple and black to show temperatures which go beyond 50 degrees and indeed on Sunday and Monday in parts of Australia are forecast to do just that?
ALASDAIR HAINSWORTH: Yes, that’s right. The charts previously did go above 50 degrees, our models certainly were picking temperatures above 50 degrees but they were, it was showing up as white and so we decided that we would alter the temperature scale to ensure it showed it properly and we’ve added the extra two gradations which take the temperatures up to between 52 and 54 degrees Celsius.
At this stage we’ve only seen the first gradation, which is between 50 and 52 populated but yeah, it’s certainly extraordinarily hot over South Australia and central Australia and unfortunately it does appear as though it’s going to, it’s set to continue.
BEN KNIGHT: Do you think we are seeing a new reality, a new paradigm?
ALASDAIR HAINSWORTH: Well, as far as the models are concerned then yes. We haven’t seen these temperatures before but by the same token our computer modelling is getting better, it’s getting more accurate, it’s getting higher resolution. So it could be a combination of these factors which in actual fact just means that it’s actually modelling these things better, that it may not necessarily mean that they haven’t happened before but it’s simply that we haven’t been able to model it before.”

Now I had to not only listen to this extraordinary exchange, but read it several times, to try to make sense of it. I think we have here not really a conspiracy of silence, as it were, but more a combination of circumstances resulting in the same outcome. Mr Hainsworth, I’m guessing, is there because the ABC researcher rang the BOM and said we want to do an interview about this heatwave and about the altering of the weather map parameters could you put us on to one of your people to interview please? And the BOM public relations person has said, oh, you want Mr Hainsworth, his area is responsible for the map. So there we are. Mr Hainsworth is there to talk about the map (and is in any case not a climatologist), Mr Knight is there to talk about record-breaking hot weather (although I am guessing he is also under some kind of ABC protocol that doesn’t let him use the phrase “climate change”).

So, potential cross-purposes established, we start this part of the interview. Mr Knight tries to ask whether this hot weather is the result of the changing climate (without using the term, instead going for the euphemism “past decades where it’s been progressively getting hotter and hotter”) or is some kind of “freak event” as it were. Mr Hainsworth is there to talk about hot weather events, and about his map which reports them, so he does. The map and nothing but the map.

Mr Knight, perhaps hoping that although he can’t mention climate change, perhaps he can get his interviewee to do so (again, I am guessing that an ABC protocol may specify this) tries again with a different euphemism. Are we, he asks “seeing a new reality, a new paradigm?” Knight (again I’m guessing) hears his own question as “come on Buddy, talk about climate change FFS, ‘new paradigm’, get it?”. Hainsworth, having been invited on to talk about his map, hears “how did you construct your wonderful new map on your computer, what were the computer paradigms?” and answers accordingly, yes indeed, our computers are bigger and better so the maps are getting better. Or perhaps I am being too kind.

Whatever, the outcome is that extraordinary weather, a clear prediction of climate science, and obvious further evidence that the planet is warming, are both apparently “discussed” in serious tv programs on the national public broadcaster without climate change ever being mentioned. Furthermore the guest manages (I think unintentionally) to suggest that all of this could be just some kind of computer modelling glitch and we aren’t really getting hotter at all. In any case, it’s all because of some odd combination of weather circumstances. (It’s worth noting that the Bureau of Meteorology has apparently issued a statement I can’t find that “Clearly the climate system is responding to the background warming trend”. Which is fine but too mild, and as far as I know was little reported if at all).

Now, if I were to complain to the ABC about this, I would be met with incredulity. “What are you talking about? We talked about the map and got the senior person from the BOM responsible for it to talk about it. What more do you want?” And, at one level, fair enough. But at another level, why not get a climate scientist on? Why not mention climate change by name even once in half an hour of news and current affairs tv?

The next day, by contrast, the media was full of the statements by Warren Truss, leader of the Right Wing National Party and future Deputy Prime Minister in a conservative government. No problems with euphemisms, or being cautious for Mr Truss. He announced that linking heatwaves and record temperatures and bushfires with climate change was “utterly simplistic”. He went on to say that “carbon dioxide emissions from bushfires over the past week would eclipse those from coal-fired power stations for decades. Indeed I guess there’ll be more CO2 emissions from these fires than there will be from coal-fired power stations for decades”. It hardly needs saying that Mr Truss has done no research in climate science, has done no postgraduate degree in the subject, and in fact has no undergraduate qualification of any kind. He began work as a farmer, then went into politics.

It also hardly needs saying that his CO2 from bushfires comment is mind-numbingly wrong. “bushfires this year have emitted an amount of CO2 equivalent to 2% of Australia’s annual emissions from coal-fired power. The current bushfires must burn an area of forest greater than Tasmania to generate CO2 emissions equivalent to a year of burning coal for electricity. And the current bushfires must burn an area of forest the size of New South Wales to generate CO2 emissions equivalent to a decade of burning coal for electricity.” In addition of course, the CO2 from bushfires will be reabsorbed as burnt trees regrow, so, unlike coal power stations, there is no net gain of CO2 from bushfires at all. Again, to my knowledge, there was no fact checking of Mr Truss on tv when he was interviewed, or subsequently. Certainly there was none, nor any contrary view in the News Ltd paper report I saw.

So Climate Change denialists, Right Wing politicians, are able to make any outrageous nonsense claim (Mr Truss also said “‘I’m told it’s minus one in Mt Wellington at the present time in Tasmania. Hobart’s expecting a maximum of 16. Australia’s climate, it’s changing, it’s changeable. We have hot times, we have cold times… “!) they like and it will be hyped up by the media (big headline in the Herald-Sun “Climate change link to heatwave, bushfires ‘utterly simplistic’, says Warren Truss”). Conversely, it seems, any situation in which the reality of climate change might by chance become obvious to the public is played down, or structured in such a way as to avoid the possibility of information transfer to public ears.

It has so far proved impossible to get past the media who are guarding the gate against any possibility of action on climate change. The time has come for more direct action, more big claims, like those of Truss but based on reality not fantasy. Aim to generate headlines in spite of the media. And every time you get a chance at an appearance on tv or anywhere else in the media, keep saying “climate change” over and over. The time for being shy, unobtrusive, in the climate change closet, is over, the time has come for purple prose to go with the new purple patches on the map.

Je regrette tout


Whenever a young person comes to me and says “Listen, wise old man, what career should I think about? What occupations are going to be most needed in the next twenty years?” I am always happy to help.

“Young Person” I say “you have come to the right man. There are just three occupations you should consider:

1. Plastic Surgeon specialising in tattoo removal. There are going to be hundreds of thousands of Australians, millions perhaps, who are going to reach the age of, say, sixty, and say to themselves ‘What the hell was I thinking? What is all this rubbish on my arms and legs and back and neck? Who is this person whose name is on my arm in big letters? And are those Chinese characters? Really? A tiger, a motor bike, the Southern Cross? FFS’ And then they will be desperately searching for someone who can remove all this rubbish, which once seemed like a good idea (perhaps under influence of alcohol) when they were younger and smoother, from their now wrinkly skin.

2. Financial Guru specialising in the return of privatised companies to public ownership. Australia, like a number of other countries, tattooed its economy with once public utilities turned into glossy private companies. What seemed like a good idea (under the influence of neocon think tanks) in those carefree days of the 1980s and 1990s now is revealed as a terrible error of judgement. Smart people are going to be needed to undo the thatcherite damage, and return railways, water, telecommunications, airports, wharves, hospitals, schools, energy, to public ownership.

3. Landscape ecologist specialising in revegetation. Australia has tattooed its landscape (under the influence of agribusinesses, forestry companies, coastal developers) with the scars of bulldozers and fires and chain saws. What seemed like a good idea thirty years ago has left a barren landscape, erosion, loss of biodiversity and species, and contributed to the terrible consequences of climate change, and the public will soon be demanding that sand dunes, water courses, grasslands, ruined farmland be returned as far as now possible, to the habitats they once contained (not totally possible of course, land, like skin, loses its elasticity).”

So there you have it. Where once, devil-may-care about future consequences, singing along with Edith “Je ne regrette rien”, young people and politicians gaily jumped into decisions with little thought for how hard they would be to later reverse, soon all of us will be trying to undo them now the consequences are clear. And there will be plenty of jobs for young persons.

Bound for Botany Bay


Ah, Xmas, mistletoe, Xmas trees, snow, hot roast dinners with Yorkshire pud, plum puddings with threepences in. Could be at Manor Farm with the Pickwick Club could we not? Except we’re not. We’re in Western Australia in the 1950s. The temperature outside is 40 degrees C, inside hotter as the wood-fired oven cooks the roast chicken and potatoes. The “snow” is artificial, powder sprinkled on a northern hemisphere pine. The assembled family are sweating with the heat. The children are demanding to go to the beach but being told to shoosh because it was Xmas. Ah yes, the Dickens Xmas, the Prince Albert Xmas, just one of the many inappropriate things exported from Britain to its former colony in the south seas.

It would have been better for the Australian environment if, on 26 January 1788, the ships rounding the Heads into Sydney Harbour, had contained not English, Irish, Scots and Welsh soldiers and convicts, but settlers from southern Africa, Middle East, western China, or Chile.

Thing is the British soldiers, convicts, and later free settlers all brought with them a great deal of cultural baggage. It wasn’t just that the seasonal greetings and celebrations of Xmas were taking part in a totally inappropriate environmental setting, so was everything else. The heavy clothing that was worn, the inappropriate housing that was built, also would have been better discarded on the London or Liverpool docks. Those things, like Xmas celebrations, didn’t matter much, apart from generations to come feeling discomfort, especially in Summer. They were retained, like the monarchy, long past their rational use-by dates as a way for strangers in a strange land to cling to their heritage.

But there was other cultural baggage, unrecognised for many years, which was much more important and damaging. They were coming from a small island country which had, in no particular order: plenty of water; managed forests of deciduous trees; deep soils; island climate with the added impact of the Gulf Stream; no catastrophic events, notably drought or fire; a fear of “wilderness”; the removal of any animals perceived as a threat; the presence of a number of species which had, it would turn out, enormous potential to become pests in a new environment.

People were coming to a country where those things were not true, the reverse in fact, but they would perceive it through eyes conditioned to the natural world of Britain. Just as they brought hot Xmas dinners and three-piece woollen suits, they also began stocking the country with British animals so they would feel at home, could continue hunting. In came (almost unbelievably) foxes, rabbits, hares, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, most of which would go on to become pests that would damage the environment on a catastrophic scale. In came willows, poplars, pines, oaks, elms, to replace the despised native trees cut down and burnt. Anything un-Australian was prized.

They would clear land whose thin top soil was only being held there by vegetation; pump water from streams that were only seasonal, from rivers whose flow was very irregular; stock land at high rates according to what a really good season could support, as if the good times would never end; plant monoculture crops over huge areas; pretend that eucalypt forests could be “managed”, initially by cutting down trees, later by use of fire; hunt and wipe out thylacines, and so on. [Oddly perhaps, they didn't bring with them the one practice, hedgerows, which would have been a plus in Australia]. Farming practices that had evolved over thousands of years to suit British conditions, were applied indiscriminately to a continent that hadn’t evolved to cope with them. But people were comfortable with retained Britishness in land management as in everything else, and so forests were cleared, land was overgrazed, rivers and irrigation basins were drained, topsoil blew away, species became extinct.

Things have gradually changed. Hot roast dinners have mostly given way to backyard barbecues, or salads and seafood at the beach. Houses are better designed for climate extremes (and are beginning to incorporate energy-saving and solar panels to make use of the Australian sunshine). Still have suits and ties of course (in spite of the efforts of one state premier in the 70s to popularise light “safari suits” for business wear), and still have the monarchy, but hey, some things take time.

Land management change takes time too. Oh a lot has been learnt about dry land farming, preparing for droughts, stocking rates, crop and stock varieties, working thin soils, being more efficient with water and chemical use, and so on. There has been a big development of wind breaks, equivalent in a sense to the British hedgerow. On the other hand forests and woodlands are still being woodchipped or cleared at high rates, with massive outcries at any attempt to slow down let alone stop it; irrigation, including, astonishingly, for crops like cotton and rice, is still full steam ahead, again with massive reaction whenever there is a suggestion it might be reduced; killing of native species goes on as frequently as it ever did; people are still talking nonsense about using fire and “thinning” to “manage” forests; and many farmer’s organisations are still hotbeds of climate change denial (change that will decisively demonstrate that we are not living in Britain). A long way to go, and no time.

Time we became un-British (well, except for cricket of course).

Slumming it


Whenever I hear a conservative attack environmentalists; sneer at all conservation measures; demand an end to “green tape”; spit on Rachel Carson’s grave; assert that there are no limits to growth; talk about scientific conspiracies; rant about new world governments; ask what importance the earless lizard has; demand to dump mine tailings on the Great Barrier Reef; cover up after massive ocean oil spills; demand endless population growth; promote uranium mining and nuclear power ….

…. I picture their home. The sewerage outlet has become blocked and toilet contents spill out of the bathroom; termites are eating through the walls; the roof is full of holes and water drips from ceiling; in the garage underneath a car is running, the fumes rising up; cockroaches infest the kitchen; cigarette butts are strewn all over floor and carpet is smouldering, smoke rising up; windows are broken and the wind howls through; and rats nest in cupboards.

I guess they are too busy making money to look after the place where they live. And our place.

Not making it any more


Don’t know if you saw the recent tv program on the geological history of Australia. Some early stuff I didn’t know. For example that enormous mass of iron ore in WA was deposited when the first primitive organisms that could generate oxygen began doing so and all the iron in the seas rusted. The iron and other ores around Broken Hill generated in the deep seas which then ran through this part of the continent. Coal and gas of course laid down when the then lush tropical vegetation died and rotted and was buried far underground by sediments. All flukes really, that the deposits occur in Australia, and flukes dependent on conditions that can never be repeated from millions, even billions, of years ago. No more of that stuff being made on this planet.

On top of the land surface Australia had a rich biodiversity of abundant plant and animal life, also the result of millions of years of evolution and ecosystem development. This biodiversity sustained Aboriginal people in considerable comfort for around 50,000 years, and then provided the basis for English colonists to fell timber, graze sheep and cattle on the extensive grasslands, and grow crops where the soils were deep and organically rich. Not building diversity and rich soils any more.

There’s an old, sorta joke, which says “Want to invest in a sure thing? Buy land, they’re not making it any more”. It’s a message that should have been given to every citizen of Australia to use as a reminder that resources are limited. Instead we have behaved for two and a quarter centuries as Australia Unlimited. Big country, plenty of soil, plenty of trees, plenty of mineral resources. Now the crunch is coming, and there are a couple of urgent responses we need to make. We need to ensure that a good proportion of the staggeringly huge profits being made from digging up those made-once-only mineral resources come back to benefit the 21,999,997 of us who are not mining billionaires. That they are used to create a stronger better Australia as a solid home for us when resources start to dwindle or the demand for them disappears. One of the things we could do with it is sort out infrastructure needs as the climate changes – infrastructure like efficient irrigation, like decent efficient transport, like support for large scale renewable energy projects. And support for individuals in education, health, aged care and so on. The recent budget, trying to balance all those needs, pulling up the blanket to cover the head only to expose the toes, is a classic example of failure to use the mining resources wisely.

And the other response is to stop destroying remaining forests and to start restoring soils to good health. Not least because we need the environment as healthy as it can be to meet the changing climate.

What’s that other saying? Oh yes,”A stitch in time saves nine. Time we started urgent stitching.

It’s showtime


Has been Agricultural Show season (American county fairs) round these parts lately. When I was young the family always went to the Show. My grandmother baked her famous jam tarts and made her equally famous lemon butter and carried them carefully to the Showground. We would come back, anxiously, after the judging, to see if she had won, knowing how disappointed she would be if someone happened to beat her one year. My mother did sewing and flower arranging, and again was always disappointed if she didn’t win. I wandered around, a young fellow, sitting on tractors, looking at big cattle, marvelling at the farmers in their show day clothes and hats – farming was such a glamorous profession. I would take a few grains of wheat from the overflowing golden boxes on display, to try to make them grow in my suburban garden.

Much later I would be showing and judging sheep, possibly also looked at in awe by the young kids running around. So a long involvement with agricultural shows all over the country, until I have had to give it away. Others have too it seems, shows have seen dwindling crowds at times and have had to try to turn them into entertainment in addition to the old agricultural purpose. A great pity I think, but different times, different shows.

Just good to see them surviving though. Important community function. I remember the pleasure in catching up with other farmers from far distant places, seeing them only one or a few times a year as we arrived at shows to compete. Just as important for the locals though, as they bring in their craft work and cooking just like my mother and grandmother did fifty years ago.

Recent ABS survey shows a quarter of Australians “are involved in some sort of cultural activity, which was defined as a creative hobby such as drama, cabaret, craft, singing, playing a musical instrument or dancing”. Of those 18%, or some 800,000 people, were involved in “textile crafts, jewellery making, wood crafts or paper crafts like scrapbooking … sculpting, painting, drawing or cartooning”. The local Show provides an important outlet for all these people as well as a chance to meet others with the same hobby. So important as a social glue.

And a glue likely to continue through more generations – “People aged from 15 to 24 were most likely to participate in cultural activities (34 per cent) but interest dropped off as people aged, with people over 65 reporting a participation rate of about 23 per cent.” So the young ones are coming as old fogeys like me drop out.

And even younger ones are playing around the tractors and cattle, thinking how exciting and glamorous life on the land might be for them one day.

On with the show.

I can hear that thunder roar


Yet more Queensland floods. Third time in about a year for some towns? Was struck by one farmer’s comment – “I’ve lived beside this creek for 65 years, but I have never heard anything like the frightening roar of the water last night”. The roar would clearly stick in his mind the rest of his life as something beyond anything experienced since a small child growing up. I am willing to bet that he would be saying to himself, not just “what the hell is going on?” as the creek roared and floodwaters rose, but “what the hell is going on?” in a more general way. Also willing to bet that more and more farmers, hit with more and more disasters, are asking themselves the same thing. Possibly asking themselves why their trade and political representatives haven’t been telling them.

Evidence for climate change on the ground, where people actually experience it (especially farmers, ears eyes nose to the ground), was never about “a drought” or “a flood” or “a hot day”, in spite of the pretence by some that this was what was meant. Which led to the obvious retort, well, of course we’ve had droughts, floods, hot days before. Led to nonsense from Senator Joyce whenever there was a cold day in Canberra “so much for global warming, ho ho”.

It was always about RECORD events – record high temperatures, record long droughts, record high floods, record sequence of high temperatures, record numbers of floods, record warm nights. Of course years vary from “good” to “bad”, vary particularly with the oscillation between La Nina and El Nino events, always have. But on an upwardly rising curve of air and water temperatures, with more and more heat stored in the oceans especially, the extremes of weather will become more extreme. More and more high temperature records will be set, more and more record flood events. Indeed it now seems clear that the El Nino-La Nina cycle will become even stronger (a recent study for New Zealand has shown, but the same will apply to eastern Australia) and with higher frequency.

So more and more farmers, both here and in NZ, are going to experience events they have never experienced before. Are going to have to try to deal with extremes – of record floods following record floods, of longer droughts, of longer sequences of higher temperatures. I doubt there is a farmer in the land at the grass roots level who doesn’t know this, doesn’t sense the change in the seasons, the response of plants and animals to those changes. With your ear to the ground everyone can hear the roaring sound of climate change arriving.

Factory floored


Had a meal in a cafe the other day in a big city not a million miles away. Very poor, almost inedible. These days I’m pleased when I find a good meal. Often the meals seem prepared with little care or attention, using frozen or preserved ingredients, precooked and then reheated in microwave, and so on.

So I prefer eating at home usually, but this is no longer the certainty it once was. Nothing to do with the cooking of course, he adds hastily, avoiding repercussions, but more to do with ingredients.

Don’t know if you have seen a television program called “Jimmy’s Food Factory”. The chap tries to recreate the processes by which food is converted from what occurs naturally on the farm to what you find packaged for sale in shops and supermarkets.

It is one of those programs that tell you far more than you wanted to know for your own peace of mind. He minces things up, steams them, reduces to grey sludge, adds chemicals for colour and taste, reconstitutes in new form, dries, freezes, fires out of cannon, packages, adds a misleading name (a “custard” biscuit for example having no custard of any kind), finished.

The result bears little resemblance to the original but is in a convenient shape and form that can be shipped readily, and will last for a thousand years on a shelf. There are “foods” that you can never look at the same way again after seeing this program – I was floored by a lot of it. If you haven’t seen it I’m afraid it’s not a case of what you don’t know won’t hurt you.

On top of that is the way that there is increasing misleading labelling, of the origin of foods from, say, China or South America, shipped to New Zealand and relabelled, or with labels here that confuse with misdirections involved in various permutations of “Australian made”. Before you know where you are, like watching a magician with hat and rabbit, you have little idea about where the food came from, how old it is, what additives it may have, and so on.

What can we do about it? Not much, probably, we are locked in to factory farming, factory food processing, mass transport over long distances, factory selling in the supermarkets. The people along the chain, after the stuff leaves the farm gate, all make more money the cheaper the food can be processed and the longer it can be sold for. We gain in the convenience of marching into a supermarket, at any time of day, any time of year, and reaching for a packet of something or other which is invariably there.

But having your stomach process factory food probably isn’t the best for you. Increasingly we try to grow some of our own foods, shop at farmer’s markets. Maybe if enough of us do that the stuff we eat won’t turn our stomachs quite so much.

Worth a try.