There’s a romantic myth surrounding Australia that is pervasive both overseas and within the national psyche: this sun-scorched continent home to stoic bushmen1 that eek out a frugal, yet satisfying existence in this harsh rural land. Unfortunately that ideal is anathema to almost every Australian alive today.
While some elements of that myth do have a basis in reality – it is indeed a hot, dry, mostly inhospitable place if you count the entire land area (all 7.69 million square kilometres of it), and it does have the dubious honour of being the driest inhabited continent on Earth – most Australians live nowhere near the dry interior or the bush.
Despite our remarkably low average population density (a mere 3.09 people per square kilometre), Australia is in fact one of the most urbanised nations on the planet, with nearly 90% of its citizenry living within a major urban centre. As a result, our largely urban/suburban, latte-sipping, supermarket-shopping population has little, if any, connection to the vast landscape that surrounds its comfortable, built-up environs. There should be little wonder then that Australians are so disconnected from their own ecology, and little surprise that our elected officials (who, after all, represent the values of the majority of the citizens they purport to represent), are doing nothing to slow the rapid flushing of our environment down the toilet. Indeed, the current government is in fact actively encouraging the pace of that destruction.
Part of that massive disconnect with ‘country’ (to borrow a term from modern Aboriginal cultures) is that we cannot as a nation begin to fathom the dire consequences in which we now find ourselves. Despite living in that driest of continents mention earlier, we are superlative water wasters. The average Australian uses some 340,000 litres of water per year, which is six times the global average of 57,000 litres per year. We also think that as a nation we have the right to grow crops like cotton and rice – insanely water-intensive agriculture. Our lust for meat from feral herbivores like cattle and sheep means that our largest water requirements are for livestock and pasture. As an example, it takes about three years to raise beef cattle to slaughtering age, with an average of 200 kg of boneless beef produced per animal. This requires about 1300 kg of grains, 7200 kg of pasture or hay, and 31,000 litres of water for drinking and cleaning. This means that the total amount of water required to produce 1 kg of beef is about 15,340 litres. Think of that next time you eat some Australian-produced steak.
Australians also have one of the highest per capita greenhouse-gas emissions profiles in the world. In fact, we hover around the highest emissions per capita in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), which in 2006 was 28.1 tonnes per carbon-dioxide equivalent, nearly twice the OECD average and more than four times the global average. While falling a little since then (e.g., in 2010 it was nearly 25 t per person), the waste is, frankly, disgusting.
It’s time to change things, but as I mentioned in my last post, there are absolutely no signs that Australia is headed in the right policy direction to improve these statistics. If anything, we seem to be hell-bent on making them worse, including an emphasis on producing even more under-educated and out-of-touch urbanites that cannot even begin to appreciate the problems, let alone address them.
Where are the humble and frugal Australians of bush folklore? They exist no more.